New Milford joins newly formed, regional health district that should bring savings, expand services

Photo of Currie Engel

NEW MILFORD — The town’s health department is officially joining a regional health district following a public hearing and Town Council vote this week.

New Milford Health Department will join forces with the Pomperaug District Department of Health — serving Southbury, Oxford and Woodbury — to become the Housatonic Valley Health District at the start of February. The merger includes cost savings for New Milford, increased staffing and sanitarians, and expanded health services and offerings, officials said.

Washington will hold a vote to join the new consolidated district this month, and anticipates starting services by Feb. 1, according to a press release from the newly formed district. The district would then serve all five towns.

New Milford Mayor Pete Bass said he was “very excited” about the finalized merger.

“It’s a win-win for New Milford,” he said.

Once the Town Council’s meeting minutes are finalized, they will be submitted to the state, along with other requisite paperwork, New Milford Health Director Lisa Morrissey said.

Morrissey will stay on as director for the district. She has already been serving as Pomperaug’s interim health director since former director, Neal Lustig, was ousted last summer.

“The district had some prior issues and they asked for help,” said Bass. “Obviously, being a good neighbor, we said Lisa can definitely help if she so chose.”

Bass and Morrissey have previously stated they are confident in Pomperaug and have said that the department is back on track after an investigation this summer cited wide-ranging, systemic and cultural problems within the organization.

With the state encouraging regionalization of smaller local health departments, Bass said that this would be an opportunity to consolidate on the town’s own terms.

Officials have also said that the merger will save New Milford around $94,000 each year thanks to state dollars that are used to incentivize districts to regionalize. It will also allow for expanded health services and offerings between towns.

“Honestly, I’m just so excited for the future,” Morrissey said. “I really do believe that this initial year really was a taste of what’s to come as far as being able to demonstrate to the community the value of a full service department of health.”

Anne Neumann, chairman of Pomperaug’s board of directors, said she was thrilled that the merger is finalized, and thanked local staff and leaders for their hard work.

“We look forward to serving all of our five communities with expanded public health and environmental services,” she said.

Questions raised

While some council members initially voiced concern over the possibility of diminished quality of service when the idea was first presented, they all voted in favor of the merger during Monday night’s council meeting.

Hilary Ram, a council member, called the cost savings “incredible” during the vote, but asked if the council could talk about how the savings get re-allocated. The question wasn’t answered at the meeting.

Council member Mike Nahom asked if it was a permanent merger, to which Bass responded that the town has the ability to opt out.

Towns that join health districts can vote to leave the district after 24 months, according to state statute.

In Southbury, First Selectman Jeffrey Manville said he has been told the merger will bring better health services to his residents and cost savings to the town, but was not a part of the decision— that was up to Pomperaug Health’s board of directors.

Deal details

The full merger will not change Morrissey’s day-to-day duties. She plans to split her time between New Milford and Southbury each week. Eventually, the goal is to set up two brick-and-mortar offices in each town, with office hours held in each of the five towns.

While Southbury is already home to Pomperaug Health’s condo offices, Manville said the new regional district may want more space.

Since August, Morrissey has split her duties and the health departments have been sharing resources. Other staff in both districts will remain in their positions, too, with the addition of a new sanitarian.

The salary for her expanded role has not yet been finalized.

Morrissey told residents during the public hearing that the cost savings were just one part of the equation.

While sharing resources these past few months, the town has been able to double its environmental health services thanks to an additional sanitarian. New Milford, which does not have budgeted nursing staff, would be able to take advantage of the health district’s nursing team.

“That has really been instrumental to help us here in New Milford, not just with COVID-19 but also with expanded services for diabetes for pain management for disease management,” she said during the meeting.

The new regional health district will be overseen by a board of directors made up of representatives from each of the five towns. New Milford is expected to get three seats based on its population size, which allows for one representative per 10,000 residents.

“I’m just really looking forward to — with this merger — being able to continue to expand and provide more services to the residents,” Morrissey said. “I feel like we’ve just gotten started on the work that we’re doing.”

Moving quickly to regionalize

Less than a month after the vote, the town will officially be under the auspices of the Housatonic Valley Health District.

Morrissey said the next few weeks will be dedicated to filing paperwork and ensuring a smooth transition.

In recent years, the state has made it much easier easy for districts to regionalize, according to Bass.

He called it a pretty comprehensive but easy process.

“It’s not as complex as you would think,” he said. “The state has really cleared a lot of barriers because obviously they want the districting.”

In the next few weeks, Bass plans to bring together the first selectmen from the five towns to get to know each other better.

Bass said that as health directors in smaller towns begin to retire, and the state continues to push toward consolidating health districts, he wouldn’t be surprised if more towns began to regionalize their services.

“Obviously each town has its own thoughts about how it wants to move forward,” he added, with a caveat.