Carlson eager for new challenge as coordinator of county health initiative

Editor’s note: The day of the meeting was initially incorrect and has been corrected.
By Dan Spalding
News Now Warsaw

WARSAW — Kurt Carlson, the former longtime director of Bowen Center, is coming out of retirement to serve as the coordinator for Kosciusko County’s huge expansion of health services under the new Health First Indiana program.

Carlson formally begins his new job in early February but was the point person Wednesday night at the county health board meeting where he outlined plans for what is poised to be the biggest expansion of health services the local community has ever seen.

The Health First Indiana (HFI) initiative was established last year by the state legislature and is providing millions of dollars to a majority of counties who opted into the state plan with the hopes they can take steps at the local level to improve health outcomes.

The health board on Wednesday approved its 2024 HFI budget of $968,000 and spent much of its time determining how to use it in its first year as it works to establish priorities with six school corporations and local health-related agencies.

Some of those decisions will come from an advisory committee that will meet for the first time next Wednesday.

Carlson retired two years ago after a 33-year career with Bowen Center where he built the mental health and addiction services agency into a broad network serving a large portion of Indiana and then later helped develop a health clinic services niche.

County Health Administrator Bob Weaver said they had advertised the job but had not received any inquiries. Carlson said he was approached about the position by one of the county’s three county commissioners and said he’s ready for the challenge.

While the state outlines some priorities, he said he wants to work to further strengthen what the county can do in other ways.

“I see this as an opportunity — not so much as a lot of work — it is a lot of work,” Carlson said. “I wanted to get back into something meaningful to do. This is important stuff.”

Weaver remains a key player in decisions and was pleased to have a new administrator help direct traffic for the new bureaucracy.

“It’s his thing. This is what he’s used to doing. So I think it will be great. He’ll be a good coordinator of those funds,” Weaver said.

At the same time the health board works to define HFI mission for 2024, they also need to start planning for the 2025 budget which is expected to double in size to about $1.8 million.

Health board members speculated they will need to schedule extra meetings this year as they work to coordinate the new services.

In the coming weeks, Carlson will be reaching out to school districts to determine what programs already exist and what could be added.

The HFI budget sets aside more than $193,000 for services directed to the six school districts.

He outlined eight core public health services that could be connected to schools. Those include immunization/vaccination, lead testing, tobacco and vaping, chronic disease prevention, material and child health (pregnant students), collaboration with health department nurses, access to public health and clinical care and infections disease prevention and control.

Dr. David Hoffert, superintendent with Warsaw Community Schools who sits on the health board, offered words of support after a cursory look at the categories.

After talking with school officials, Carlson is expected to propose specific initiatives for the schools that would be reviewed by the advisory committee, which would make recommendations to the health board.

Carlson is then expected to begin reaching out to health-related agencies to determine what programs they could become involved with.

State money is already available, according to Weaver.

Carlson will have an office in the K21 Health Services Pavilion.

The board also discussed how to allocate the money as well as reporting procedures on progress of the programs.

The county health department also plans to delve into tattoo parlor inspections, which are not performed currently.

The HFI budget sets aside $39,000 for somebody to oversee that effort.

Weaver said staff will have to be trained and that he sees the role as a part-time position.

Aside from training, the health department needs to determine how many tattoo parlors exist in the county.

He said he sees the program as service rather than a punitive regulatory role.

Dr. Eric Waldo, of Mentone, who was named last week as the new county health officer, was welcomed aboard for his first meeting.