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Washington County Health Board, nonprofit to continue efforts

MARIETTA — The Washington County Health Board, facing a 30-day deadline on reporting for a grant, decided Friday to continue using the services of a nonprofit headed by a former health administrator.

The grant, $85,000 of federal funds intended to enhance county services for people affected by the opioid crisis, requires “deliverables” within 30 days for approval, health administrator Roger Coffman told the board. The nonprofit — Community Health Improvement Associates — has worked on the project since the grant was awarded.

Coffman said the grant, meant to fund assistance measures such as the weekly needle exchange and walk-in counseling and referral services held in a local church, is structured on a reimbursement basis. The county submits documentation supporting its service claims, and the federal evaluators release the funding. The grant is in the first of its three years.

Community Health Improvement Associates was established by Dr. Richard Wittberg while he was still the department administrator. Wittberg was released by the board in July 2019.

The grant, known as an RCORP/PIRE — which stands for Rural Communities Opioid Response Program/ Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation — is intended both to deliver service to people affected by opioid addiction and gather data about program effectiveness.

Board president Bruce Kelbaugh said the proposal sounded reasonable.

“I don’t think we have any choice but to use (Wittberg’s) resources,” he said. The board voted unanimously to allow Coffman to pursue the agreement.

Coffman also suggested that in the future such grants could be broken down into “mini-grants” for each of the four agencies doing service delivery — The Right Path for Washington County, Family and Children First, the county behavioral health board and the county health department — to simplify the process.

“Those other agencies should have some skin in the game regarding the paperwork,” Kelbaugh said in agreement.

Regarding the RCORP/PIRES grant, board member Nat Sistrunk asked, “At some point, should we find someone who can do this in-house?”

“Certainly,” Kelbaugh said.

Coffman said after the meeting that several people from the department had followed Wittberg out the door last year, diminishing its grant-writing capacity. Grant-writing is a complex process requiring specialized skills and experience. Coffman had remarked during the meeting that grants are the “lifeblood” of the department.

Regarding Wittberg, Coffman said, “We need to evaluate our relationship with the former health commissioner. There were other employees who had these skills, but they had a difference in philosophy, felt they would be better working someplace else. That’s normal in the workforce today. As a public agency we don’t have unlimited funds, and sometimes it’s hard to compete.”

Wittberg, contacted Friday afternoon, said he expects to having a meeting soon with the county health board and the behavioral health board.

“We’ll set up a game plan,” he said. “I’d really like to keep that grant in the county. The big goal is to get good information on which to base decisions.”

The next meeting of the board is scheduled to take place March 9.

Michael Kelly can be contacted at mkelly@mariettatimes.com.

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