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Becker County Community Health keeps a low profile, but helps a lot of people

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DETROIT LAKES -- Though Becker County Community Health has only been in existence since Jan. 1, 2005 (when it took over the county's public health programming from Multi-County Nursing Service), it's already outgrowing its home on the first floor of the County Human Services Building.

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Yet if you ask people on the street what it's all about, chances are they won't have a clue.

"We're one of the best kept secrets in town," said Community Health Supervisor Ronda Stock.

But that's really the way it should be, she added. "If we're doing our job, you don't hear about us very often."

"We're the safety net -- the silent do-gooder," she continued, "until there's a pandemic flu or other public health emergency."

But Becker County Community Health encompasses much more than emergency response services, or preventing the spread of infectious disease.

The biggest component of their work, Stock noted, is education.

For instance, the WIC (Woman, Infant & Child) program incorporates nutrition education along with food vouchers.

According to statistics released by the National Association of WIC Directors, for every dollar a county invests in WIC services for pregnant women, there is a savings of anywhere from $1.92 to $4.21 in Medical Assistance (MA) funding for a mother and her newborn.

"WIC is not only good for ensuring health birth outcomes, but it's also good for our economy," Stock continued.

In 2006 (the latest statistics available), Becker County issued $924,230 in WIC vouchers -- and $862,874 of those vouchers (93 percent) "were redeemed in our own county," Stock said.

Since 2005, the WIC program itself has grown significantly, from just over 1,000 clients per month to over 1,200 per month in 2007.

"We're the largest we've ever been," Stock said.

And WIC is just the beginning of the family-based services provided by Becker County Community Health (BCCH).

Prenatal, childbirth and newborn classes are also offered to all residents of Becker County, tailored to meet specific needs such as labor and delivery, breast feeding and bottle feeding, newborn/postpartum care and more.

Becker County Community Health also has the advantage of being fully integrated with the human services department, she added.

"If someone comes in who is pregnant and wants to apply for WIC, and they have issues like (needing) medical assistance, domestic violence, homelessness -- we can connect them with a prenatal nurse to do one-on-one visits," Stock said.

"For any baby born in our hospital, one of our nurses calls (the mother) and says, 'Would you like me to visit?'" she continued. "It's purely voluntary."

When someone does ask for a home visit, "our goal is for our staff to be there within 24-48 hours after they leave the hospital," said Stock.

If a new mother has concerns such as low weight gain, etc., the nurse can do a physical assessment of the child, and also provide educational services to help alleviate those concerns.

"Teaching, prevention -- that's a lot of what we do," Stock said. "And we do make a difference."

Immunization education is also a component of these home visits, she added.

"In 2007, we did over 2,200 home visits," Stock said, noting that the total reflects both postpartum visits and ongoing follow-up.

"Most insurance companies do cover one to two visits by a public health nurse (after birth)," she added.

And statistics provided by the Rand Corporation in 2005 also show that for every dollar invested in targeted home visiting, a savings of $5.70 can be seen by investing in high risk families.

BCCH also is one of the first counties in the state to have incorporated a dental varnishing program into its Maternal Child Health (MCH) services.

"We were the second (county) in the northwest region to open this program (in October 2005)," Stock said. "To date, we have had 529 clients. The program has grown by leaps and bounds."

Dental varnishing is a way of applying a protective coating to an infant's emerging teeth that will help prevent what is known as "baby bottle tooth decay."

"We try to get them into the program as soon as their baby teeth erupt," Stock said. "They (mother and child) come in for their WIC visits once every three months, and we check for new teeth at each visit. It's an ongoing service."

Becker County also does lead testing for children at the same time they come in for a hemoglobin test.

"We want them to have a hemoglobin test done at least twice under the age of 2," Stock said. "When they come in for that test, we take one more drop of blood and run a lead test at the same time."

The results are shared with the client's primary care physician, who will do any follow-up necessary, and also refer them to a state consultant for a home visit to determine the source of the lead contamination.

Becker County's health priorities include not only preventing poor birth outcomes such as premature or underweight newborns, developmental delays and other health problems, but also cutting down on the number of children who experience inadequate parenting.

One reason why this is such a priority, Stock said, is that the amount of pregnancies in Becker County that are unintended or involve only a single parent is a staggering 41 percent -- well over the state average of 29 percent.

In many cases, such pregnancies also involve a child protection issue.

"Thirty-two of our current cases involve working with child protection to keep the children in the home, or working toward reunification (of parent and child)," Stock noted.

BCCH also does a child and teen checkup program, in which a complete physical is performed at scheduled intervals; preschool screenings at area schools; family planning services; pregnancy testing; immunizations; as well as car seat installation and education.

Non-family based services that BCCH provides include long term care consultation; disease prevention and control; emergency preparedness; nutrition education; flu clinics; adult vaccinations; health promotion/wellness activities; MAC (Mother and Child) and NAPS (Nutrition Assistance Program for Seniors) commodity food programs; and more.

To learn about what programs and services are available, call Ronda Stock at 218-847-5628.

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Vicki Gerdes
Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 14 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as obituaries. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.
(218) 844-1454
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