WATSEKA — The Ford-Iroquois Public Health Department has decided not to pursue its plan to provide home-health services in Indiana, Public Health Administrator Doug Corbett announced Tuesday afternoon, one day after the Iroquois County Board's attorney warned the move would be illegal.
"The issue is dead," Corbett said in a written statement. "We have always said that if we received a legal opinion that we could not cross into Indiana that we would abide by that ruling. Until last night, no one had told us that we could not legally move forward."
Iroquois County State's Attorney Jim Devine advised the county board of his opinion at the start of a special meeting Monday night that was called to consider the removal and replacement of three of the county's four appointees on the Ford-Iroquois Board of Health.
Devine said he consulted the Illinois attorney general's office about whether it would be legal to spend taxpayer dollars on services provided outside of Ford and Iroquois counties. The attorney general's office did not take any stance on the issue but advised Devine to interpret the state statutes strictly.
Devine said there is "no precedent" or judge's opinion to rely on in interpreting the law. But he said the law appears clear: "Nothing in the statute suggests you can go outside your borders."
Ford County State's Attorney Matt Fitton said late Monday night by telephone that he has not formed his own opinion yet but was still "looking into it."
Meanwhile, the removal of the board of health members was proposed by County Board Chairman Rod Copas of rural Onarga, an opponent of the health department's decision to start providing home-health services in Benton and Newton counties in Indiana.
Copas said he feels the board of health did not do its "due diligence" before making a decision to spend tax dollars across the state line. He also said there was no attempt by the health department's board or administration to notify the county board of the plan prior to its approval last July.
The county board did not vote on the removal of the board of health members Monday, with officials saying they wanted more time to deliberate the issue before making any decision.
Devine on Monday encouraged the county board to "re-establish a dialogue" with the board of health to resolve the legal issue. The board made plans to form an advisory committee, also comprising members of the Ford County Board, to monitor the activities of the health department and make recommendations.
Both Copas and Ford County Board Chairman Rick Bowen said they would be working with their respective state's attorneys to set up the advisory committee with the intent of appointing board members to it at their regular February board meetings.
Corbett said he appreciates the support that the community has provided to the health department during the "home-health in Indiana debate" and that he is hopeful that the Ford-Iroquois Public Health Department Board and the two county boards can "work together in the future to best serve the needs of our residents."
Corbett said the health department decided to look into the expansion of home-health services into Indiana after the agency became aware of a need for providing the service in Benton and Newton counties, which are rural and have large elderly populations.
The move was also considered a way to generate revenue to help address a projected $138,000 shortfall in this fiscal year's budget, thus avoiding a property tax increase. Corbett stressed that the services would be provided for a fee charged to those receiving the services, so the programs would pay for themselves.
But Copas said he feels the health department, which receives about 20 percent of its budget from property taxes in Ford and Iroquois counties, should not be legally allowed to spend money generated in its jurisdiction on services provided outside of the two counties.
According to information obtained from the health department through a Freedom of Information Act request last week, the agency has already spent $3,691 on the Indiana home-health program. The total consists of a one-time expense of $30 to the Indiana Secretary of State's Office for a license to operate in Indiana; $1,000 to hire a consultant, Rebecca Zuber, to assist in licensing requirements in opening the new Indiana branch; $2,400 in rental payments to Novotny Real Estate dating back to Aug. 8 for an office in Kentland, Ind.; $114 in monthly utility bills paid to Kentland Utilities; and $147 in monthly bills to Nipsco, a natural gas and electricity supplier.