Law tackles responsibilities of county public health

Jill Law had just been named the permanent executive director of El Paso County Public Health in JillLaw2013June when the Waldo Canyon fire broke out, reducing hundreds of homes to ashes, killing two people and leaving thousands without electricity.

Even though she was evacuated — as was the health department itself — Law managed to set up a temporary location to serve clients, work with emergency teams set up in the city and county, and plan for the fire’s aftermath.

Public health responsibilities didn’t end when the fire was doused. Instead, Law’s team helped dispose of tons of spoiled food from restaurants and homes. They monitored air quality during the debris cleanup and helped staff the disaster recovery center.

It was all in a day’s work for El Paso County Public Health, the agency charged with a diverse range of services to the public — responsible for restaurant, body-art and day-care inspections, water and air quality testing, immunizations, oversight for the Women, Infant and Children program, tobacco cessation classes and home visits to first-time moms. The department also is in charge of the county’s vital statistics, birth and death records.

Then there are the emergencies — like the Waldo Canyon fire and water-quality issues that shut down one of Memorial Hospital’s clinics for days. On those days, the 160 staffers drop their regular jobs to pitch in and help solve the crisis.

Law is up to the challenges of a dynamic, constantly changing environment. A public health nurse for 18 years, she climbed through the ranks, first serving as immunizations and home-visit nurse. She eventually was promoted to division director, second in command at Public Health, overseeing the majority of its employees.

Then, last March, she was tapped as interim director when Kandi Buckland announced her retirement.

“I think I had about a week with her,” she said. “So the first eight months have been very fast-paced, very dynamic.”

Law inherited a $400,000 budget deficit, a department stretched to near its limits and a staff that she says does the workload of a much larger operation. It’s the staff she credits with the department’s many successes.

“I always say there’s no ‘I,’” she says. “There’s only ‘we.’ That’s what keeps me grounded.”

In less than a year, she has managed to whittle the budget deficit, aiming for a balanced budget with no additional funds from the county. The department had a $14.3 million budget in 2012. The county provides $3.3 million of that, with state funding around $825,000. The department gets about $7.2 million in revenue from state and federal grants, plus $2.5 million from licenses and fees.

She’s able to manage it all thanks to the staff, she says. That’s partly because she held both her previous job as division director and her current job as executive director for the first five months.

“It saved money, the staffing for the position,” she said. “It was my suggestion to the board, and I did both jobs for quite some time. We didn’t have any fat to begin with, and now we’re very, very lean. We will end the year with a balanced budget, if there aren’t any emergencies, and we have presented a balanced budget to the board for 2013.”

Law wasted no time in getting down to business. While juggling dual roles, she laid the groundwork for El Paso County Public Health to become the state’s first accredited health department.

“We’ve paid our fees, we’ve turned in all the paperwork, and now we’re waiting on the site visit,” she said. “But that’s my goal: to become an accredited health department. That will give the people confidence that we’re doing the right things.”

For a substantial number of El Paso County residents, Public Health is doing the right things. According to the 2011 annual report, the department oversaw 1,621 ill people from outbreaks, inspected 47 “body art establishments” and did 383 screenings for breast and cervical cancer. Employees also inspected 183 child-care centers and provided 11,610 immunizations. They performed 2,708 microbiology tests for public water systems and handled 4,067 reproductive health visits. That’s on top of the 6,077 inspections of retail food establishments and the $9.7 million in WIC (Women, Infants and Children) vouchers distributed.

Law oversees it all, but she doesn’t forget her roots as a nurse.

“One of the things that attracted me to public health was the ability to interact with patients more,” she said, “the ability to go into homes, to visit and to really get to know people. I think we spend more time with our patients than they would see elsewhere.”

The health department will continue to do more with less, but that doesn’t bother Law. She says that she’s going to focus on the department’s successes, and let people know how many areas in El Paso County are within its reach.

“We’re still getting a lot accomplished,” Law said. “That’s our focus for the long term.”