BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – After 34 years with the Lee County Health Department, a change is taking place at the top.
Julie Schilling, who’s been at the helm of LCHD since the spring of 2004, announced her retirement earlier this summer and now is looking at just a few more weeks before turning the reigns over to Michelle Ross. One of Schilling’s favorite pastimes is hiking and she said she’s looking forward to even more time to pursue those interests after hiking in such visible areas as the Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Park.
Ross has been with the department in different capacities for the past 22 years and said she’s ready for the challenge. Her number one goal is to facilitate health planning and strategies for the people of Lee County. She began with the department’s HOPES program, Healthy Opportunities for Parents to Experience Success.
The LCHD is currently wrapping up its Community Health Needs Assessment, which is conducted every three years. The results of that assessment will be discussed on Oct. 4 at a roundtable event in Montrose. Ross said that will be the jumping off point for her when it comes to programming for the department and where to look for funding.
“I think it’s always a challenge when you have funding issues,” Ross said. “We’ll look for every avenue we can to bring in additional grant dollars and continue to meet our regulations and be compliant to bill third party payers, and stay viable in the community as a resource for our clients.”
She said Schilling has helped usher in an era of public health in Lee County that focuses on keeping populations healthy and providing help specifically where it is needed. Schilling also launched the first hospice service in the county.
“I think in public health you’re always looking at population health and what we can do to keep our populations healthy here,” Ross said. “A lot of our programs are based on population health and what those needs are. When we look to start new programs or expand programs, we look at that and then try to get the state behind it.”
One example of the assessment that generated a new program was the senior produce box that was initiated a year ago where seven locations in the county are drop off areas for fresh produce.
“That was born out of the countywide assessment. Those plans identified seniors in rural areas that have limited access to healthy foods,” Ross said.
She said she sees her role as looking at the different health needs and expanding and addressing those issues while continuing to provide services on a public and private basis that are in need in the county, including the ever-competitive hospice programs.
“We were the first hospice program in Lee County to offer services and we have an excellent reputation with our programs,” Ross said. “We hope to keep that reputation when she steps down and continue to provide quality hospice and home care services.”
Schilling’s last day will be Sept. 30 and, looking back, she said the department has come a long way to providing public health services to county residents throughout their lifespan.
She said one of the focuses in Lee County has been with maternal health and focusing on in-home care with new mothers who have limited resources, including mental health, dental, and vision for those families.
“I saw it in home visits right away when I started that we needed to address those problems,” Schilling said. “We have a sliding fee scale for that and I think there are still a lot of needs here in Lee County due to the poverty rate. We have some very young families who have a lot of needs. That’s why there were additional dollars allocated. The federal government realized it so there were advocates there, and Iowa was really proactive in being one of several states to get money to expand that program, because they were seeing families who needed that help.”
Schilling said the department now stands as a model with the Iowa Department of Public Health because of the programs they’ve been able to be successful with in areas with low income and provide services.
“I think the state does look at us as a model because we are one of several counties that could do multiple services and we have a board of health that is very active when we have the opportunity to expand.”
Schilling said she doesn’t think she’ll have an issue with transitioning from the demanding role as administrator of the department to a retiree.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a problem with finding something to do with the time,” she said.
She said with her skills and knowledge of public health, doing some volunteer work would be rewarding, but maybe getting in some more hiking could be in order.
A public reception is being held on Tuesday, Sept. 25 at the Lee County Health Department in the former John Bennett Unit from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. to celebrate Schilling’s retirement.