Arapahoe County's new health department to see familiar faces in leadership

Current Tri-County Health staff named to key roles as agency takes shape

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As the clock ticks for the Tri-County Health Department, which is set to dissolve Dec. 31, much of its leadership will see a new chapter after Arapahoe County announced it would bring on staff for key roles in its new, self-serving health department. 

“Each individual we’ve hired has a deep understanding of the unique public health needs of Arapahoe County,” said Jennifer Ludwig, Arapahoe's new public health director, who served as deputy director for Tri-County. "Their work at Tri-County Health Department in the coming months will be instrumental to the continuance of services for residents through the end of the year." 

The announcement, which came July 8, marks a major milestone for a county pursuing an aggressive — and unprecedented — timeline to establish health services for its roughly 650,000 residents by the beginning of next year.

Penny Grande will serve as the new health department's deputy director and will begin working full-time with Arapahoe County this month. Grande served as director of nursing for Tri-County, overseeing daily operations of the agency’s largest division, with a $16 million budget and 175 employees. 

Others joining the leadership team are Michele Askenazi as director of environmental health, communicable disease, emergency preparedness and response; Heather Baumgartner as director of planning and health promotion; Jill Bonczynski as director of nutrition; Melissa Spencer as director of nursing; and Breanna Paderewski as director of admin and operations.

They all currently serve in those same roles with Tri-County Health and will begin working for the county's new health department in January, the county said. 

Arapahoe County is not alone in its scramble to set up its own health department within months. It joins Adams and Douglas counties as well after both counties decided in the fall of 2021 to pull out of Tri-County. 

It was a decision spurred by Douglas County leaders who had clashed with Tri-County Health officials over mask mandates during the first year of the pandemic. After vowing to form their own health department, Adams and Arapahoe county leaders followed suit, though Commissioner Nancy Sharpe said it was "not something that Arapahoe County actually wanted."

Dr. John Douglas, Tri-County's executive director, said he was "sorry to see that it went in this direction” and said the pandemic “exacerbated political divisiveness."

“You go into health seeking the common good and that kind of divisiveness got in the way of seeking the public good," Douglas said.

The retention of current Tri-County staff became a key question as the department faces its imminent demise. 

Douglas said internal polling had shown a vast majority of current Tri-County staff have interest in moving to a new county-run health department. But he also acknowledged Tri-County has seen its employees thin out over the past year following heightened stress and burnout from the pandemic.

“Every place saw the great resignation going on, and we weren’t immune to that," Douglas said. “Last year, we probably were running 30% to 40% more staff choosing to leave than previous years."

Sharpe said while it "would be unrealistic" for the county to be immune to labor shortages, she is hopeful the department's competitive salaries and benefits would be enough to hire and retain adequate staff. 

Douglas said he is not currently in discussion with any of the three counties for a new role and said he is looking to a sabbatical for at least a year once Tri-County dissolves. 

"My firm plans are to get us through the next six months," Douglas said.

Along with leadership staff, Arapahoe County also recently named its five-person health board to guide the new department that includes county commissioners Sharpe and Nancy Jackson as well as Shawn Davis, a Colorado-based health care consultant; Bebe Kleinman, CEO of Doctors Care; and Dr. Heather N Signorelli, a pathologist and vice president and chief laboratory officer for HCA Healthcare

Along with its ability to issue mask mandates and promote vaccines and testing during the COVID-19 pandemic, Tri-County Health supports a slew of other services to county residents, including no-cost cancer screenings, overdose prevention, free nurse visits and restaurant and child care facility inspections. 

These are all services Arapahoe County leaders pledged would continue under their new department. 

A budget still remains to be finalized, but the new health department is expected to cost at least $5 million or more annually, according to Sharpe, who said money will come from the county's own budget as well as state and federal funds. 

Arapahoe County paid the most for Tri-County services of the three counties last year, according to a consulting firm's report, at $4.8 million. Adams paid $3.8 million while Douglas paid $2.6 million. 

Arapahoe County, Tri-County Health, Arapahoe County health department, John Douglas, COVID-19, Jennifer Ludwig

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