New Study: Strengthening Montana’s Public Health System

Today we released a new study that takes an in-depth look at Montana’s public health system and gives recommendations for strengthening it. The “Creating a Vision for a Healthier Montana: Strengthening the Montana Public Health System Study” is the result of a year-long project by the National Network of Public Health Institutes and Population Health Partners. It is the culmination of over 50,000 miles of travel, three regional roundtable discussions, and many interviews, meetings, and site visits. This project was an excellent opportunity for us to work with public health professionals and community members across the state. We hope the report will serve as a resource to inform strategies for strengthening Montana’s public health system moving forward.

Public health departments at the county and Tribal level have broad responsibilities for the health of Montana communities, including controlling disease outbreaks; protecting the public during emergencies; ensuring safe food, water, and air quality; and serving as the “chief health strategist” that convenes community organizations and facilitates solutions to key challenges. Studies show that each dollar invested in public health can return many dollars in health care and social service savings. Despite the vital role it plays in improving health, though, public health receives only three percent of health care dollars. As a result, many departments face serious funding and staffing shortfalls.

“Public health is often defined as promoting, protecting, and improving the health of communities through education, promotion of healthy lifestyles, and disease prevention, detection, and response.”

Our commitment to strengthening Montana’s public health system goes back to the very first grant we ever gave out. With that grant, we supported county and tribal public health departments to convene community partners, identify key health challenges, and develop collaborative plans to address them. (A library of community health assessments, community health improvement plans, and public health strategic plans is available here) Through this work, we learned about specific needs in Montana communities and the challenges many public health departments face in meeting them. We also realized that to improve the system, we would have to be strategic.

Creating A Vision for A Healthier Montana

We commissioned the “Creating a Vision for a Healthier Montana” study to bring together stakeholders interested in improving public health and to determine practical ways to work together to strengthen the system. The study found that Montana’s 58 county and tribal public health departments face limited resources to address critical health challenges such as preventing substance use disorders and mental illness, improving maternal and child health outcomes, and preventing chronic diseases. The study’s recommendations include:

  1. Developing an institute to support the public health system and invest in strategies that show value to the rural, frontier, and tribal communities.  
  2. Realigning the nonprofit public health associations (Montana Public Health Association, the Association of Montana Public Health Officials, and the Montana Environmental Health Association).
  3. Strengthening relationships with local elected officials, their associations, and critical health leadership groups.

The study was conducted in collaboration with health care and public health officials, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, the university system, Montana’s public health associations, nonprofit organizations, policymakers, business and community leaders, and government and elected officials.

Next Steps: A Montana Public Health Institute

Across the U.S., more than 30 states have public health institutes that bring innovation, practical expertise, and an entrepreneurial spirit to the tasks of strengthening public health infrastructure and improving population health. A Montana-based, nonprofit public health institute would collaborate with other agencies to advance public health practice and make systematic improvements in population health. The study identified needs that a Montana public health institute could fill, including:

  • Helping to bring and manage more funding for county and tribal health departments and their communities through help with grant writing and grant administration
  • Policy analysis, engagement, and organizing to support health-informed public policy
  • Focus on programs to address rural and frontier community health needs and health disparities

Over the next year, a design team will develop a strategic and business plan and determine how a public health institute would function in concert with government public health, the university system, the public health associations, and other key collaborators to serve Montana and Montanans.

Members of the design team include:

  • Aaron Wernham, Montana Healthcare Foundation CEO
  • Alisha Johnson, Missoula County Health Department Environmental Health Specialist & Montana
    Environmental Health Association President
  • Chelsea Kleinmeyer, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Health Department Tribal Health Nursing Division Director
  • Greg Holzman, DPHHS State Medical
    Officer
  • Hillary Hanson, Flathead County Health Department Public Health Officer & Association of Montana Public Health Officials
  • Kerry Pride, DPHHS Public Health & Safety Division Administrator Public Health Systems Support Unit Supervisor
  • Kris Juliar, Montana State University, Montana Area Health Education Center and Office of Rural Health Director
  • Matt Kelley, Gallatin County Health Department Health Officer
  • Michele Henson, Montana Healthcare Foundation Program Officer
  • Morgan Taylor, DPHHS Technical Writer for Operations and Economic Services Branch
  • Patty Presser, Roosevelt County Health Department
  • Sue Hansen, Beaverhead County Health Department Director & Montana Public Health Association
  • Terry Ray, DPHHS Public Health & Safety Division Administrator System Improvement Coordinator
  • Todd Harwell, DPHHS Public Health & Safety Division Administrator
  • Tony Ward, University of Montana, School of Public Health and Community Health Sciences Professor and Chair
  • Zoe Barnard, DPHHS Medicaid & Health Services, Addictive & Mental Disorders Division Administrator

This group will be reaching out to engage many other vital partners throughout the next year and welcomes ideas and feedback along the way.

At MHCF, we understand the vital role public health plays in the health and well-being of Montana communities. While we are committed to strengthening the system, we know that a significant change cannot take place without the support, collaboration, and insight of partners across the state. We are committed to providing the support necessary so the design team can take the next steps in building a collaborative structure to provide support to strengthen Montana’s public health system.

READ THE FULL REPORT