CLEVELAND, Ohio – Members of City Council’s Health and Human Services Committee made a pitch Monday for Cleveland to use some of its American Rescue Plan aid to bolster health for minorities.
The conversation, during a committee meeting, focused on increasing the budget for the Department of Public Health’s Office of Minority Public Health.
Cleveland’s minority community – especially Latinos, African-Americans and Native Americans – have higher incidence of key health issues, such as infant mortality, exposure to lead poisoning and asthma.
But the office has just one full-time position: until recently Public Health Commissioner Frances Mills, who was named public health commissioner last week.
That staffing level didn’t sit well with some members of council, who argued the city should use some of the $512 million it expects to get from the American Rescue Plan to bolster that staff.
The office interacts with 5,000 to 6,000 people each year but relies on help through partnerships with other units in the health department and outside health and non-profit organizations to deliver its public health messages to the community, Mills said.
On the city’s website, the office is described as “a ‘clearinghouse’ for the coordination of community health efforts targeting Cleveland’s African-American/Black, Asian, Hispanic/Latino and Native American populations.”
It describes the office’s role as trying to identify needs and inform the public.
Mills estimated the office would need the equivalent of 3.5 staffers and offices more conveniently situated in neighborhoods for the city to better able handle outreach.
Councilman Kerry McCormack said committing more people to the office is important given the health disparities among minority communities.
“The department does collaborate a lot, but having infrastructure in place is critical,” McCormack said. “In an organization of 7,500 employees (the size of city government), I think that we could squeak out 3.5 for the Office of Minority Health.”
That office gets an annual grant from the state of Ohio of about $52,500 to cover costs of printing of materials, an equity symposium and other outreach costs, Mills told the committee.
The committee agreed Monday to accept the grant for another year.
The salary of the office’s single worker is covered by the city’s general fund budget.
The health department interim director, Brian Kimball, told the committee that once a new commissioner starts to direct the newly created Division of Health, Equity and Social Justice, the makeup of the office could be studied.
“The strategy will be developed once our new commissioner gets on board,” Kimball said. Mayor Frank Jackson announced last week he selected Lita Wills, who is the director of community impact for United Way of the Mahoning Valley, to be that commissioner.
But members of the council said the issue should not wait until the 2022 budget hearings.
“COVID-19 has affected minorities more than anyone, so why wait until the budget time to put money in there,” Councilman Kevin Conwell said.
Jackson did not have an immediate comment. The mayor has not yet revealed plans for spending American Rescue Plan money. Those plans will also require approval of Cleveland City Council.
Expanding effort toward minority health is important if that office is to be viewed seriously, Councilman Bashier Jones said.
“We create offices or create initiatives with no intentions to fully fund it in a way it needs to be funded,” Jones said. “We’ll continue to be an unhealthy city so long as we are not able to bring the true resources to the table.”
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