Luzerne County council has not discussed the formation of a county Health Department — an idea considered and rejected by county commissioners more than a decade ago, according to council members.
Just six of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties have health departments: Allegheny, Erie, Bucks, Chester, Montgomery and Philadelphia.
All of those counties are in metropolitan areas of cities much larger than Wilkes-Barre, the largest city in Luzerne County.
In 2008, before Luzerne County’s home rule form of government took effect, county commissioners sent a letter to the state asking approval to form a county Health Department.
The county had reserved bond funding to help form the department, according to published reports. However, the department was never created.
“I don’t think we had the authority to create a Health Department,” said Stephen A. Urban, who was a commissioner at the time and later served as a council member from 2012-19.
Disease prevention and food inspection are state responsibilities, Urban said.
“Why should the county be tasked with that?” he said. “It’s just another burden to the taxpayers.”
The issue of county-run health departments has been discussed during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Counties that maintain their own Health Department, such as Montgomery County, have issued more information about COVID-19 patients than has the state Department of Health.
The state updates do not specify the age or gender of the patient, the municipality in which he or she resides or the circumstances under which the person became infected, such as differentiating travel-related cases from those caused by community spread.
Two county councilmen who often disagree when council votes on motions agree that finding funding to form a Health Department would pose a challenge.
“I don’t believe council has ever discussed it,” said council Chairman Tim McGinley. “I would think some of the reason the county has not pursued it is money: How do you fund it, how do you service it and finance it?”
Councilman Harry Haas, who like McGinley has served on council since the body was formed in 2012, said he does not recall any council discussion about forming a Health Department.
“I’m not sure how we would fund that,” he said.
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