09/22/09 — Duplin Health Department will now control WIC

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Duplin Health Department will now control WIC

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on September 22, 2009 1:46 PM

The Duplin County Board of Commissioners voted Monday 3-2 in favor of turning the county's Women, Infants and Children nutrition program over to the Duplin County Health Department.

A state-level directive forced commissioners to balance the jobs of existing workers against the needs of WIC program participants in the decision, which drew emotional discussion from audience members close to the issue.

Before the vote, Duplin County was the only county in North Carolina that did not have a unified WIC program "under health auspices," said Alice Lenihan, branch head with the state Public Health division of the Department of Health and Human Services.

The WIC nutrition program was run independently of the health department by Eastern Carolina Human Services, an Onslow County-based organization, but commissioners were asked to vote to turn the program over to the county health department or risk having the state issue a competitive bid to surrounding counties to find another agency to run WIC.

"I would never want Wayne County or Sampson County coming in here and doing our work," Commis-sioner Frances Parks said. "It just makes sense to me."

However, the commissioners were not supportive of being forced to make the decision or in agreement over the issue.

"I've seen that WIC program grow from zero to what it is now," Commissioner Zettie Williams said.

The board should not vote to do anything that will cause people to lose their jobs in such a difficult economic climate, she said. Mrs. Williams made a motion that the board wait for a 12-month period before putting the WIC program out for bid.

But that wasn't an option, Ms. Lenihan said.

"It doesn't mean the current organization has done a bad job," she added. "... we feel that one-stop shopping is important to our consumers."

Of the state's 100 counties, 87 have WIC nutrition programs run by health departments.

In the case of Duplin County, "I can't continue to justify a sole source when there are organizations that have the ability to do it," Ms. Lenihan said.

Chairman Cary Turner allowed comments from the assembled audience, but not without issuing a request first.

"Please don't let it follow the pattern it followed six months ago," Turner said. "It got a little bit ugly, and I don't want that to happen tonight."

Marcia Wright, chairman of the Eastern Carolina Human Services Board of Directors, commented that the program as it is stays at more than full capacity and offers "wraparound" services that cannot be provided by a health department.

"There are ways to solve any problems that might be going on between these two centers," she said, highlighting possible miscommunication between WIC and the Duplin County Health Department.

The current WIC staff has more than 20 years experience in working with the program, and turning the nutrition program over to the health department will just incur greater costs for the county, Ms. Wright said.

"You have huge issues ,and you are getting a service without having to put money into it," she said.

But once transferred to the health department, the wraparound services, such as lactation consultation, won't be possible, she said -- and it will likely cost county taxpayers more money.

"Your funding stream won't allow it," Ms. Wright said. "You're going to have to put money into it, there's no way you can't."

But Ms. Lenihan disagreed.

"I do not believe it would require county money," she said.

However, if the county must put money into WIC as hypothesized by commissioners, and if the county was unable to fulfill that obligation, the WIC nutrition program would go out for bid. The first request for bids would go to neighboring counties' public or non-profit health agencies, Ms. Lenihan said.

Although it's possible that staff levels would not change and the existing employees could possibly be rehired into their positions, the dangers were apparent to Daphany Hill, ECHSA executive director.

"We are fighting here. We are fighting for people's jobs," Ms. Hill said. "I don't think it's fair any way you slice it."

But the choice before the board was clear, Commis-sioner David Fussell said.

"I think the state has already decided what we're going to do," he said.

Turner agreed with the assessment.

"I don't think we have any say in the matter," he said.