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Revamped Cleveland Health Department To Focus On Racism As Health Crisis

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson addresses media questions about the restructuring of the city's health department in a virtual press conference September 17, 2020. [City of Cleveland / Facebook]
Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson

After being investigated for complaints of racial discrimination, Cleveland’s health department has been reorganized to better focus on addressing issues such as racism, crime and violence as public health crises, Mayor Frank Jackson said Thursday.

That's why, he said, the department is now under the city’s Office of Prevention, Intervention and Opportunities for Youth and Young Adults, which was created in 2017 to improve the quality of life for children in impoverished neighborhoods.

The office, led by Chief Tracy Martin-Thompson, focuses on preventing violence, crime and addiction in youth – which the health department will now focus on for all Clevelanders, Jackson said.

“There’s been an identification of racism as a public health issue, and the impact of racism on the economic and social fabric of certain communities, and how that has resulted in toxic stress in a social way,” Jackson said. “That is completely in line with what Chief Martin is doing.”

Martin-Thompson was also one of the investigators in the internal review of the health department that lead to the reorganization. The investigation was sparked by employee complaints of poor treatment and racial discrimination. The probe did not find evidence of racial discrimination, but it did conclude that supervisors made “detrimental mistakes” and treated staff poorly.

As part of the shake-up, former public health director Merle Gordon was reassigned to a new position focusing on population health. Brian Kimball, who previously served as the city’s environment commissioner, has been tapped to lead the Cleveland Department of Public Health as interim director.

The mayor will work with Kimball to devise concrete plans to address crime and violence as health issues in addition to coordinating the department’s coronavirus response, Jackson said. New staff members will be hired into positions directly related to these causes, he said.

Jackson pointed to issues such as violent crime and social unrest in the city in recent months as another reason for the shift in the department’s focus.

“The underlying issues that result in that type of behavior are the things that we have to address,” he said. “We have to continue to work on those concrete plans that deal with the prevention side, to take away some of the reasons for making those kinds of bad decisions when it comes to crime.”

Restructuring the health department under another city office is unique compared to other Ohio and U.S. cities.

Pittsburgh does not have its own health department; rather, it falls under the jurisdiction of Allegheny County. Detroit, on the other hand, has its own health department. It is the only Michigan city with such a department, while the rest fall under the state’s 67 counties.

In Ohio, while there are 88 counties in the state, there are 113 local health departments. Some major cities, such as Columbus and Cincinnati, have their own health departments, while others, such as Toledo, fall under county jurisdiction. Smaller cities such as Canton, Kent and Youngstown all have their own departments, while Akron – home to roughly more people than all of those cities combined – does not.

The municipal health departments do not appear to report to a separate city office, as Cleveland’s does now – but Jackson supports the new workflow of the department.

“We live in a different time, and traditional forms of healthcare delivery and the way health department’s function are not necessarily applicable for the time we are living in,” Jackson said.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.