The Hamilton County Sheriff shares public health goals, and is working to learn more from the local medical community

Among the public health goals of new Hamilton County Sheriff Weston Wamp is to better serve disadvantaged and neglected communities while launching a new innovation in the Department of Health.

Wham said in an interview that he has been working to learn more about the Hamilton County Health Department and other health-related areas of county government, such as emergency medical services, in the nearly three months since becoming mayor.

To date, the Department of Health is “in many ways the hardest part of county government for the average person to understand,” Wham said.

“It has dozens and dozens of programmes,” he said. “It is funded by a mixture of local, state, and federal dollars. The facility is old and confusing to navigate, and it’s really a reflection of the complexity of all the business that goes on there.”

The complexity of managing health is partly why he chose Dr. Sudav Mendiratta, Chief of Emergency Medicine at Erlanger Health System, and Dr. Kelly Arnold, Founder and Medical Director of Clinica Medicos, for his transition team.

“I thought it would be really helpful to bring Dr. Arnold and Dr. Mendiratta into our transition so they can start evaluating opportunities in health management with a wealth of knowledge and experience that I don’t have, and that has been very fruitful.” “Every day, I think we peel the onion back a little bit.”

Wham said about 10% of the county’s annual budget, about $30 million, goes to fund the department. The scope of work performed in the Department of Health includes family planning services, dental care, restaurant inspections, running a health clinic for the homeless, and managing a supplemental feeding program for women, infants, and children.

“These are unseen services for a health department that certainly has its bureaucratic challenges but is also full of wonderful public servants, many of whom are passionate about caring for patients,” he said. “The people who stayed at the Department of Health after the pandemic are people who are fairly strong and determined to still be there after what has been an incredibly challenging two years.

(Read more: Health officials in Chattanooga monitor flu amid ‘triple potential’)

“So we’ve tried to come in and ask the right questions, get to know the leadership, open ourselves up to the possibility that things can be done really well, and then also be sensitive to opportunities to improve the productivity of a very large component of county government.”

In his role as chief of emergency medicine at the only safety-net hospital in the area, Wamp said Mendirata sees the gamut of public health issues from chronic disease and violent crime to mental health and substance abuse. The intersection of substance use, mental health, and homelessness is just one of the issues that Mandirata helps counsel Wamp on.

“This is just really complicated stuff for policy makers to wrap their arms around,” Wham said. “So, in my mind, in a job like this, it’s imperative that I go and find the people who have experienced it and encounter it every single day.”

Wamp said he also has a “huge interest” in seeing the local Latino community thrive and is looking to Arnold to help find ways the county can better serve this growing population.

“Thousands and thousands of primarily Hispanic children receive care at Clinica Medicos, so her insights about this community — which I often think elected officials don’t understand and don’t know — have been very helpful to me,” he said. “I hope the Department of Health learns a lot from Clinica Medicos.”

(Read more: Clinica Medicos breaks ground in Chattanooga on new dental and mental health facility)

Mendiratta said in a phone interview that although Wamp is not a health expert, he is “very open-minded” and has built a strong team of counselors.

“The accessibility and interest that he has in addressing some of these key issues is really a great first step,” he said, noting that Wamp is “interested in getting data and facts” when it comes to policy-based solutions to health issues in the county.

“We’ve had a lot of great conversations about allocating resources and looking at using the resources we have strategically and appropriately to maximize impact for every taxpayer dollar,” Mendiratta said.

As the Department of Health and the province enter a new era post-pandemic, Wham said he is looking forward to better linking the department’s work with other areas of provincial government.

For example, he said MOH encounters a large number of young parents, which he said is an “incredible educational opportunity” to improve childhood reading rates.

“One of the things I’m really passionate about is all the points of contact in county government—from the health department working with moms to the juvenile court system that gets families in all kinds of different predicaments to the large public school system,” he said. “So that’s the chain that we’re going to spend a lot of time thinking about over the next four years — how do we connect some of these county government functions that don’t really talk to each other.”

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673. Follow her on Twitter @employee.

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