Health Southern Indiana

Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb is forming a new commission to examine the state’s public health system and offer recommendations on how lawmakers could alter it.

The 15-member board will meet monthly starting next month. Holcomb said the state has consistently struggled in national health rankings in recent years, even before COVID-19 took hold.

“What we’re doing is trying to solve localized and state structural issues that have been exposed, for sure, during a global pandemic,” Holcomb said. “But we were in the bottom 10 before the global pandemic.”

Former state Sen. Luke Kenley and former state health commissioner Dr. Judy Monroe will co-chair the commission. Monroe is now president and CEO at the CDC Foundation, a nonprofit created by Congress to support the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The commission will form task forces to investigate issues like emergency preparedness, funding, governance and services, workforce, data collection and childhood health. Local health leaders will have a chance to offer input during statewide listening tours that will be conducted over the next year.

Indiana Health Commissioner Dr. Kris Box, who will also serve as the commission’s secretary, said the state’s more than 90 local health departments are hard-working but often struggle with limited resources and staffing. That’s only gotten worse during the pandemic. In addition to monitoring COVID-19, health departments typically oversee immunizations, death records, licensing and environmental concerns.

“Some of these departments are simply unable to perform all of these duties that they’re required to do by law,” Box said. “Their resources are stretched thin in the best of times. And carrying out these required duties during a pandemic has become a Herculean task.”

Box said the purpose of the commission is to help alleviate that burden and eliminate weaknesses in local public health.

Findings will be compiled into a full report by next summer. The report will include recommendations to legislators on how to update public health statutes ahead of Indiana’s 2023 General Assembly.

“By taking a deep dive into the strengths and the weaknesses of Indiana’s public health system, we believe that we’ll be able to identify ways to better support public health, reduce health disparities and ensure that where you live will not be the determining factor with regards to your access of the public health services you can receive,” said Box.

The public health review will also assess Indiana’s ongoing response to pandemic. But Holcomb said it’s important to first stop the recent spike in COVID-19 cases, which he said will require more buy-in from a divided public.

“It’s not just what we can do, it’s what you can do to solve the problem,” Holcomb said. “We need you to do the right thing. And that’s getting vaccinated. That will keep our kids in schools. That will keep our businesses open.”

Indiana’s moving average for new daily COVID-19 cases is 2,671, as of Aug. 17. That figure has more than doubled in just two weeks. COVID-19 spread is at its highest level in the state since January.

John Boyle is a reporter and editor at WFPL news focused on Southern Indiana. He is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.