Following the announcement by Douglas County that it plans to form its own health department soon, Arapahoe County confirmed that Arapahoe and Adams counties had also been contemplating splitting away from Tri-County Health Department, driven by Douglas County's intention to leave.
By October, both the Arapahoe and the Adams county commissioners will be provided with findings from a transition team to inform a decision on a new structure for public health services, according to a statement from Arapahoe County.
Consultants are examining the scenarios of a two-county health agency or creating single-county health departments, said Luc Hatlestad, spokesperson for Arapahoe County.
“We set this up in the spring (or) summer,” Hatlestad said, adding that the study was initiated once it became clear that Douglas wasn't going to stick with Tri-County Health. Douglas County's consideration of leaving the agency came amid a rift with Tri-County Health over the agency's pandemic policies.
The tension led up to the Douglas County commissioners' unanimous vote to notify Tri-County Health that the county will form its own health department and board of health, which will end its 55-year connection with Tri-County.
That Sept. 1 move this year came just a couple days after Tri-County Health's board voted to no longer allow counties to opt out of public health orders and approved a mask mandate for all students and staff in pre-K through 12 school settings.
Although Douglas County will likely formalize its intent to form its own health department with that early September vote, the wheels have long been turning on a potential separation.
In July 2020, Douglas County commissioners announced they would eventually leave Tri-County Health, citing a wish for more local control over public health orders.
But last November, the commissioners walked the decision back and agreed to stay with the health department until at least 2023. As part of that agreement, however, the commissioners were assured they would be able to opt out of any public health order. The Tri-County health board voted on Aug. 30 to no longer allow opt-outs.
A spokesperson emphasized that Arapahoe County’s consideration of leaving Tri-County Health isn’t because of disagreement with the health agency.
“We began looking at other public health agency options after Douglas announced its intentions to leave Tri-County last year,” Hatlestad said. “We did not initiate this because of any dissatisfaction with Tri-County — we’ve actually worked extremely well with them since the beginning of the pandemic.”
Douglas County exiting the health agency would potentially create financial or budgetary problems for the other two counties, Hatlestad added.
Tri-County Health has been working with Adams and Arapahoe counties over the past several months to develop a transition plan, a statement from Hatlestad said. Since the process began, Adams and Arapahoe started to include the possibility of single-county public health agencies in the process.
The process is planned to have two phases: Phase I will collect data to inform the counties in deciding what structure will provide public health services starting in 2023, according to the statement.
Phase II will create a transition plan to begin implementing in 2022. That step will begin with a series of focus groups, “key informant” interviews and “partner surveys,” the statement said.
The transition team will compile organizational and financial data and information and will create some scenarios for decision-makers to consider. By October, county commissioners will be provided with the findings to inform a decision. After that organizational structure decision is made, the transition plan will be created.
Leaders from Tri-County Health, Adams and Arapahoe counties hired external experts to help further assess and analyze data.
Otowi Group is a Colorado-based, women-owned consulting firm with expertise in public health, public administration, health systems funding and operations, the statement said. Along with Otowi, experts from the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs, ChangeMatrix, Maxfield and Gunning, and WEPublicHealth will help inform the decision making, the statement said.