Matt Hunt, the new director of the Barren River District Health Department, takes the reins of the regional agency at a challenging time.

Earlier this year, Gov. Matt Bevin vetoed a bill designed to help health departments and other quasi-state agencies avoid bankruptcy by allowing them to exit Kentucky’s pension system. The legislation reducing employee salary payments from 83 percent to 49 percent to the state pension system expired July 1 – and it is unknown if or when Bevin might call a special legislative session meant to remedy the situation.

Left unaddressed, the pension payment surge could result in 42 county health departments – including those in the Barren River District – becoming insolvent and passing on payment deadlines for debts within one year, according to Kentucky Department of Public Health Commissioner Jeffrey Howard.

“Over half of our county health departments could close their doors in a year,” Howard said, referencing a worst-case scenario simulated with 2019 data. “For us, that painted a very catastrophic picture.”

The Barren River District Health Department serves 260,000 people across eight counties, including Barren, Butler, Edmonson, Hart, Logan, Metcalfe, Simpson and Warren.

With decreased revenue and a bloated retirement contribution, the department will face significant obstacles.

“It is a crisis,” Hunt said, but he seems prepared to respond accordingly.

Hunt’s first step, in response to the pension uncertainty, has been to identify the essential health care programs that can’t be cut, followed by the next most important programs and the optional services. With any currently vacant job positions, Hunt has had to apply the same logic.

“We’re taking a hard look at ‘public health transformation,’ ” Hunt said, which is Howard’s roadmap to streamlining departments’ programs and staff and sharing services across county lines. “It’s like a GPS.”

Another essential tool is the Community Health Assessment and Improvement Plan from the BRIGHT coalition, a BRDHD partner comprised of health care, educational and healthy lifestyle experts.

To improve health in the community, workplace, schools and environment, the coalition uses data and statistics to lay out the issues affecting the region’s residents and the programs that best help them. The assessment lists issues like diets lacking fruits and vegetables, alcohol abuse, high housing costs, limited access to primary care and mental health providers and city walkability.

“I want to be able to make data-driven decisions,” Hunt said, especially when prioritizing programs, partnerships and grant writing to prevent any future gaps in essential services.

Though the health department has already made “meaningful cuts over the years,” the challenge in the Barren River District is that some counties, including Warren, don’t have a designated public health tax, so it’s difficult to ensure adequate funding and equal distribution, according to Howard.

“The issue is not quite as acute as it looked a year ago. But there are still some changes that have to happen to prevent insolvency. I think those changes will happen under Matt Hunt,” Howard said.

Despite being handed this crisis, Hunt expressed excitement for the opportunities to improve people’s quality of life.

“At the end of the day, we get to impact people’s lives,” Hunt said. “It’s very important. It’s very rewarding.

“Are we making it a better place to live, play and work? I think so.”

– Follow reporter Caroline Eggers on Twitter @eggersdailynews or visit bgdailynews.com.

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