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Santa Clara County, Health, News

State of the County 2019: ‘Healthy’ but more to do

Silicon Valley Leadership Group CEO Carl Guardino chats with Joe Simitian, president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, after Simitian’s health-centered State of the County address on Feb. 26, 2019.

Simitian: 94 percent insured, but ‘let’s keep pushing’

The County of Santa Clara, with its $7 billion budget, funds countless programs through dozens of departments and agencies.

Boil it all down, though, and the County has pretty much one job: promoting the health well-being of its nearly 2 million residents.

That’s why board President Joe Simitian recently spent virtually his entire State of the County address talking about health and how he and the other four members of the Board of Supervisors plan to keep working to improve the system.

A crowd of hundreds of elected officials, aides and others packed the board chamber and overflowed into a nearby auditorium on Feb. 26, 2019, to hear Simitian deliver a diagnosis at the end of his speech.

“The state of the county is healthy … and getting healthier every day,” Simitian said.

Hearing that conclusion was a sweet moment for all the supervisors, coming as it did on the heels of an important victory in federal court.

Only days earlier, U.S. District Judge Gary Klausner had rejected California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s attempt to block the bankruptcy court-approved sale of O’Connor (San Jose) and Saint Louise (Gilroy) hospitals to the County of Santa Clara.

Supervisor Mike Wasserman, among other proponents of the $235 million sale, had warned that Becerra’s surprise motion could result in the facilities’ closure. Saint Louise’s closure would have left thousands of Gilroy area residents without access to convenient emergency care and strained the County’s ability to manage its health system.

But Klausner’s ruling let the County complete the sale with the bankrupt Verity Health Systems. This keeps the doors of O’Connor and Saint Louise open and bring Verity’s 1,500 health care workers into the County health system.

Confident but relieved

Although County officials had expressed confidence that the sale was on solid legal footing, they were nevertheless relieved when the order came down in the nick of time. Closing the sale means the County’s main public hospital, the expanding and well-regarded Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, can more effectively manage its patient overflow.

“With all three hospitals in our system,” Simitian said, “we can cover more ground, serve more patients, share talent and services across all three hospitals, capture reasonable reimbursements, achieve economies of scale and avoid capital costs – all while saving those 451 beds. It will be, he said, “a big lift” to integrate the systems but one that the County can accomplish.

Wasserman later expressed the relief his colleagues also felt at the closing of the sale.

He praised the “extraordinary effort” of County staff and thousands of county residents. The purchase is “hugely important to everyone, especially the 100,000 people in South County who have no other alternative,” he said.

American system underperforms

In his speech, Simitian pointed to one health program after another as evidence of the County’s commitment.

He lamented the truth of an observation made by late journalist Walter Cronkite that “America’s health care system is neither healthy, caring, nor a system.”

Simitian lends an ear after a speech in which he vowed to keep pushing for improvements in the Santa Clara County Health and Hospital System.

“But it doesn’t have to be that way,” Simitian said. “In fact, here in Santa Clara County we’re already well on our way to creating a health care system that is healthy, that is caring and that is, yes, an honest-to-God system, a system that delivers for each of us as individual patients— and for all of us as a county.

“Here in Santa Clara County, if it’s humanly possible, we’ll get you covered. We all know there’s an important debate playing out at the state and national levels about who gets insured and how. But we can’t wait. As I speak to you today we’re at 93.5 percent covered. And that’s just great; but it’s not good enough. So let’s keep pushing.”

He ran through any number of other ways the County has supported the public’s health care needs over the past year. These include improved ambulance response times, better stroke care, and the continuing expansion of community health clinics.

Homelessness, poverty and health

If there is another area of concern to the county that’s equally on the mind of County officials, it’s homelessness and poverty. And yet Simitian noted that they too are closely linked to health.

“At the risk of stating the obvious, homelessness is unhealthy,” he said. “Homelessness shortens lifespans not by years, but by decades. So when it comes to housing, we know that we need to provide an array of services, treating housing services much the same way we provide health services.”

The county funds homelessness prevention programs such as emergency rental assistance through a network of agencies. It provides emergency care through a network of shelters and safe-parking programs. Long-term care is available through outreach, case management and supportive services.

People who are already homeless are not left to fend for themselves. Rather, they are able to access help through mobile homeless health care teams and medical respite programs to lower their risk of disease, frostbite, mental illness, and death.

“Having a healthy community means acknowledging – and when possible, eliminating – the toxic stress that comes from living in poverty,” Simitian said. “We need to surround families in services – which is why we’ve expanded our School-Linked Services program to reach even more schools and kids.”

Mental health and law enforcement

Finally, Simitian pointed to the need to protect the community’s mental health as an itegral part of the overall health care system.

“Let’s stop criminalizing mental illness,” he said. The County has already boosted efforts to make sure that people in a mental health crisis are targeted for treatment, not jail. But more must be done, he said.

“Let’s redouble our efforts,” he said. “By the end of this year, our long-awaited Mental Health Mobile Crisis Team should be fully staffed, ready to respond to calls from law enforcement and the public. … And again, by the end of this year, we should begin standing up our first Psychiatric Emergency Response Teams in the County – to actually embed mental health professionals with law enforcement, to work together to address community needs.”

March 5, 2019

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