Panels approve nursing program's expansion

Sauk County Health Department Deputy Director Cathy Warwick holds up documentation involving the department's Nurse-Family Partnership program during a finance committee meeting this week.

TIM DAMOS/News Republic

Despite skepticism among several Sauk County Board members, two committees voted Wednesday to expand a program that provides nursing assistance to first-time mothers living in poverty.

The board’s finance and personnel committees jointly voted 6-2 to approve the addition of one nurse to the Sauk County Health Department’s Nurse-Family Partnership program next year.

A handful of supervisors zeroed in on the program during budget deliberations in recent weeks, saying there was insufficient evidence to support its expansion.

Finance Committee member Eric Peterson of Prairie du Sac was one of several who questioned the program’s approach to solving societal problems, but ultimately voted in favor of its expansion.

“We keep raising more bad kids,” Peterson said. “I’ll tell you why, because we’ve taken God out of our whole system. We’ve taken God out of the schools. Now it’s into the national anthem. These are the reasons why we don’t have a good society anymore.”

The nursing program — which is used internationally and has been in existence for 40 years — provides parenting education to young first-time mothers and health checks for their children. The county has secured a 10-year grant that provides about $340,000 annually, and supports four nurses that may care for up to 70 families.

The health department and its oversight panel sought an additional $90,000 from local property taxes in the 2018 budget to hire another nurse and allow the program to serve 20 more families.

Public Health Deputy Director Cathy Warwick said a formula that takes into account birth rates and medical assistance data shows a need for an additional nurse in Sauk County. The expansion, Warwick said, should prevent a waiting list.

However, she said, grant funding is not currently available to support the added position. That’s why the department requested property tax levy. Warwick said she will continue to pursue grants.

Benefits weighed

During a spirited hour-long discussion Wednesday, the committees — consisting of seven men and one woman — peppered Warwick with questions. Several county board members supportive of the program also showed up to encourage the expansion.

The county program has been in existence for one year, and most of its participants have not yet completed the program. Warwick said that’s why evidence of its local impact is not yet available.

According to the nonprofit Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, three large and long-term randomized controlled studies within the U.S. have demonstrated benefits to mothers and children who participate in Nurse-Family Partnership programs.

Those benefits include decreases in child abuse and neglect, reductions in teen birth rates among participating mothers, and improved outcomes for children born to mothers with low mental health, confidence or intelligence.

The nonprofit group found that there was a pattern of “sizable, sustained effects on important child and maternal outcomes” in all three studies.

“If we follow this program with model fidelity, which I can assure you we are because that’s my job, why wouldn’t we then have those wonderful results that they see throughout the United States and internationally?” Warwick said.

Supervisor Donna Stehling of Sauk City, who chairs the county’s Board of Health, touted an example of the program’s impact on one local family.

Cora Hatfield of La Valle was addicted to heroin and 8 months pregnant when she was jailed for dealing drugs in January 2016. Hatfield and her husband, Eddie, have said the county nursing program helped them make it through that ordeal and get enrolled in a drug court treatment program.

Last month, the couple was among the county treatment program’s first three graduates.

“Their lives have changed dramatically because of (the Nurse-Family Partnership) program,” Stehling said. “They are contributing to the community and there will be others to follow.”

Although other supervisors on the two committees expressed skepticism, personnel committee members Tim Meister of the town of Dellona and Henry Netzinger of Prairie du Sac cast the only votes against the program’s expansion.

Netzinger said he had learned of a different program in Eau Claire County that teaches birth control or abstinence in schools, which he viewed as a more effective strategy.

Upon questioning, Netzinger could not provide the name of that program. He also was not sure if it was evidence-based, but he promised to provide Warwick with the identity of the person who told him about it after Wednesday’s meeting.

Warwick pointed out that Eau Claire County government also has a Nurse-Family Partnership program. She was not sure of what other program Netzinger may have been referring to.

Criticism of the health department’s request during the finance committee’s budget deliberations in recent weeks was led by Sauk County Board Chair Marty Krueger and Supervisor Richard Flint, both of Reedsburg. They said they worried that expanding the program before grant funding is secured would allow it to turn into a perpetual tax levy item.

Patrol sergeant OK’d

In a separate action Wednesday, the committees unanimously approved the Sauk County Sheriff’s Department’s hiring of an additional patrol sergeant. The position was eliminated in 2011 in response to budget cuts mandated by the county board.

Sheriff’s department officials have said the elimination has resulted in a situation in which there is no manager on duty to assist patrol deputies throughout a large portion of the year. The agency uses on-call supervisors to fill the gaps.

But that can create dangerous situations, officials said, if deputies cannot get immediate guidance during critical incidents.

After a 5-minute discussion, the committees approved $47,000 for a new patrol sergeant to be hired halfway through 2018, and an additional $39,000 for a new squad car.

The department will raise its bed rental projection in order to help finance the additional position. Sauk County Sheriff Chip Meister said that increase is feasible, in light of a new contract he has signed to rent jail beds to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

Follow Tim Damos on Twitter @timdamos

Reporter for the Baraboo News Republic.