Sunday, October 06, 2002

Health board moving beyond the pill

New chair wants focus on money for training, school centers

By Cindy Schroeder
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        EDGEWOOD - The group that nearly killed the Pill is turning to new priorities. The new chairman of the Northern Kentucky Independent District Health Board says it's time to move beyond the birth control debates of the past two years and devote more time to issues such as bioterrorism and school-based health centers.

        “I'm not saying that (family planning) issues aren't important,” said Dr. Charlie Kenner, a Florence dentist who became chairman of the health board on Aug. 28.

        “But in the past year or two, those issues have been taking up a lot of time. Meetings that used to last an hour or an hour and a half tops were going four and five hours.”

        In a nationally-watched tiebreaker vote on June 19, the health board rejected a proposal to decline federal Title X money that covers family planning services for low-income women.

        During the debate on Title X funding, leaders of the Northern Kentucky Right To Life group had lobbied the health board to reject the federal funds on the grounds that standard birth control pills and IUDs cause abortions.

        The health board would have been the first in the nation to reject the funding on such grounds.

        “Generally in Northern Kentucky, I think most of us are pretty conservative and pro-life,” Dr. Kenner said. “But I think on issues like Title X, it got down to really splitting hairs.”

        Opponents had argued that the health department's annual $170,000 Title X allotment should be rejected, calling the birth control pill an abortifacient.

        They also were upset that teenage girls could receive contraceptives at health clinics without their parents' consent and worried that hormonal contraceptives negatively impact women's health.

        Supporters had argued that doing away with the program would increase the number of unplanned pregnancies and abortions. They also expressed concern that the 4,500 low-income women in Kenton, Grant, Boone and Campbell counties who rely on Title X money to subsidize everything from contraceptives to breast exams to screenings for sexually transmitted diseases wouldn't have access to those services.

        The Title X debate came on the heels of an earlier call to remove birth control pills and other contraceptives from Northern Kentucky's health clinics.

        After much discussion, that proposal was taken off a health board agenda in the spring of 2001 at the request of the former health board member who had proposed it. The health board then voted to require that any sex education programs the health department offered in area schools promote abstinence until marriage.

        Despite his vote last June to reject federal Title X money, Dr. Kenner said that he would rather focus on other issues during his year-long tenure as the health board chairman.

        As someone who also serves as a Boone County commissioner outside of his voluntary health board position, the 48-year-old said that he's no stranger to political controversy. However, Dr. Kenner said there comes a time when certain issues should be put on the back burner.

        “I know as chairman, I don't want it to come back up again,” Dr. Kenner said of Title X.

        “It's too disruptive. Most of the people don't like the kinds of things that divide us. And we were getting down to some really really fine points.”

        “I don't want to say we've abandoned that approach at this time,” said Fred Summe, vice president of the Northern Kentucky Right to Life.

        “We're still putting out information and we're hoping the health board will read it 1/2hellip 3/4 We hope the issue (of rejecting Title X funding) comes up again. But in our current newsletter, we're encouraging people to use that as an issue when they go to vote.”

        Although Northern Kentucky health board members are appointed, not elected, Northern Kentucky Right to Life is endorsing some elected officials who also serve on the health board who have taken pro-life stands on health department issues.

        Northern Kentucky Right To Life leadership also is asking its members to vote for elected officials “who delivered on their pro-life promises” through their health board appointments and against those who didn't.

        Both Dr. Kenner and former board chairman Greg Kennedy, the 44-year-old health care administrator from Williamstown who cast the tie-breaking vote to keep Title X funding, said they haven't heard any talk about reintroducing the issue. That's despite the recent expiration of two board members' terms who had voted to keep Title X funding.

        “I think at this point there would have to be some substantial board changes before (Title X) would come up again,” said Mr. Kennedy, who continues to serve on the health board.

        “There are no issues I want to promote,” said James Brewer, a 55-year-old retired engineer from Independence who joined the health board in July. “I'm just a babe in the woods when it comes to this type of stuff. For now, I'm trying to observe and listen.”

        At Mr. Brewer's first health board meeting, he said his fellow board members indicated “the Title X discussion was over and we were moving on.”

        Another new board member, Dr. Charles Allnutt of Villa Hills, said he thinks the best way to make changes in federal programs such as Title X is at the federal level, not locally.

        While he acknowledged birth control and abortion are important issues to many Northern Kentuckians, he added he would like to see the health board focus on a broad number of areas 1/2ndash 3/4 everything from detecting and stopping the West Nile Virus to bioterrorism preparedness.

        “When it comes to bioterrorism, there are a number of possible ways the U.S. could come under attack,” the 59-year-old retired radiologist said. “There just has to be time and energy devoted to dealing with that type of problem.”

        “The health department's more than a single issue,” Mr. Kennedy said.

        “There's a host of issues that we deal with on a regular basis that are a lot less controversial and have a lot more impact on the services we provide in the communities.”

        With an annual budget of just over $11 million, the Northern Kentucky health department's staff deals with everything from health screenings to restaurant inspections to immunizations.

        Dr. Kenner said he would like to see the board focus on issues such as securing grant money for staff training and development of a local response plan for bioterrorism, as well as publicizing the plan so that the community knows what to do in case of a terrorist threat.

        The health board's new chairman also wants to see the board continue to support school-based health centers to help boost school attendance and reduce parent absenteeism at work.

        Two programs were started at R.A. Jones Middle School in Florence and Collins Elementary on Jan. 1, 2001 with the help of state money. When that funding was cut, the health board opted to continue the programs. This January, the health department plans to add two new health centers at Florence Elementary and Kelly Elementary in Belleview, and possibly one at Burlington Elementary, Dr. Kenner said.


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