HHS Sec. Sebelius stresses collaboration in service delivery with county leaders

The National Association of Counties (NACo) held its annual Legislative Summit in Washington, D.C. this week, focusing on the economy and health care reform. During a keynote speech Tuesday morning, US Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius praised local officials for their help in deploying millions of H1N1 vaccinations and promised to keep a door open to address concerns from the nation’s county leaders.

“Real change begins at the local level,” Sec. Sebelius said. “Great ideas in service delivery start in communities across the country.”

Her case in point was the outbreak of H1N1 disease shortly before and after she took office in April 2009. According to Sec. Sebelius , the federal government worked fast to understand the disease and began developing a vaccine with the coordination of the Center for Disease Control, HHS and the Department of Agriculture. But in order to address the growing epidemic and protect the public, local officials would be needed.

“We did what we could at the federal level, but we knew it wouldn’t work without state and local help.”

She said that vaccination campaigns, planning and distribution systems at the local levels were essential. According to HHS’ latest numbers, 97 million H1N1 shots and over 190 million H1N1 and seasonal flu vaccines have been distributed across the nation’s counties.

“There has never been an effort like this before,” she said.

In acknowledging the difficult economic realities facing many county and local governments, Sec. Sebelius recalled her days as the Governor of Kansas, saying the brunt of budgetary problems is too often bared at the local level. But she went on to tout various provisions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) pertaining to health and human service programs, including TANF, S-CHIP, and programs to develop a modern health workforce and health information technology.

“TANF has been used in creative ways,” Sec. Sebelius said, encouraging local officials to continuing looking for ways to use welfare money to create jobs through subsidized programs.

She also spoke about the state children’s health insurance program, S-CHIP, which has enrolled around 40 million children. But Sec. Sebelius said HHS estimates that nearly five million children are eligible, yet not enrolled in S-CHIP and she urged local leaders to help spread the word, while the federal government looked for ways to collaborate with the Department of Agriculture and the food stamp program, called SNAP.

Developing a targeted health workforce and health IT plan is another area where state, local and federal officials can have a tremendous impact, the Secretary said. Through Regional Extension Centers, similar to those found in the Dept. of Ag, HHS is looking to put “boots on the ground” to help implement technology and workforce strategies.

So far, HHS in combination with the Department of Labor, have set aside nearly $1 billion for grants to train, hire and retain qualified technicians and nurses who will lead America’s health system into the 21st Century.

“You have a critical role to play,” she told the crowd, “And I want you to know we will stay in touch and in tune with your needs. Health and Human Services is back.”

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