Hamilton County mayor shares public health goals, works to learn more from local medical community

Staff Photo by Olivia Ross  / Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp speaks Nov. 16 to an audience of Hamilton County business leaders and officials. Wamp recently spoke to the Chattanooga Times Free Press about his public health goals for the county.
Staff Photo by Olivia Ross / Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp speaks Nov. 16 to an audience of Hamilton County business leaders and officials. Wamp recently spoke to the Chattanooga Times Free Press about his public health goals for the county.

Better serving disadvantaged and overlooked communities while sparking new innovation at the Health Department are among the public health goals of new Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp.

Wamp said in an interview that he's been working to learn more about the Hamilton County Health Department and other health-related areas of county government, such as emergency medical services, in the nearly three months since taking over as mayor.

So far, the Health Department is "in a lot of ways the most difficult part of county government for a layperson to understand," Wamp said.

"It has dozens and dozens of programs," he said. "It's funded by a combination of local, state and federal dollars. The facility is old and confusing to navigate, which is really a reflection of the complexity of all the work that takes place there."

The complexity of the Health Department is in part why he tapped Dr. Sudave Mendiratta, chief of emergency medicine at Erlanger Health System, and Dr. Kelly Arnold, founder and medical director of Clinica Medicos, for his transition team.

"I thought it'd be really valuable to bring Dr. Arnold, Dr. Minderatta into our transition so that they could begin to assess opportunities at the Health Department with a wealth of knowledge and expertise that I don't have, and that was very fruitful," he said. "Every day, I think we peel the onion back a little more."

About 10% of the county's annual budget, about $30 million, goes to funding the department, Wamp said. The range of work conducted at the Health Department includes family planning services, dental care, restaurant inspections, running the homeless health clinic and administering the supplement nutrition program for women, infants and children.

"These are unseen services of a Health Department that certainly has its bureaucratic challenges but also is full of wonderful public servants, many of whom are passionate about patient care," he said. "The people who remain at the Health Department after the pandemic are people who are somewhat rugged and determined because they're still there after what's been an incredibly challenging couple of years.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga health officials monitoring flu amid possible 'tripledemic')

"So we've tried to come in and ask the right questions, get to know leadership, open ourselves up to the possibility that things were being done really well, then also be sensitive to opportunities to improve the productivity of a pretty large element of county government."

In his role as emergency medicine chairman at the region's only safety net hospital, Mendiratta sees the gamut of public health issues from chronic illness and violent crime to mental health and drug abuse, Wamp said. The intersection of substance use, mental health and homelessness is just one of the issues that Mendiratta helping to advise Wamp on.

"These are just really complex things for policymakers to wrap their arms around," Wamp said. "So, in my opinion, in a job like this one, it's incumbent on me to go and find the people who have lived it and encounter it every day."

Wamp said he also has a "huge interest" in seeing the local Latino community thrive and is looking to Arnold to help find ways the county can better serve that growing population.

"Thousands and thousands of primarily Latino children are receiving care at Clinica Medicos, so her insights into this community -- that I think all too often elected officials don't understand, don't know -- have been very helpful to me," he said. "I would hope that the Health Department could learn a lot from Clinica Medicos."

(READ MORE: Clinica Medicos breaks ground in Chattanooga on new dental, mental health facility)

Mendiratta said in a phone interview that although Wamp is not a health expert, he's "very open minded" and built a strong team of advisers.

"The accessibility and interest he has in addressing some of these key issues is really a great first step," he said, noting that Wamp is "interested in obtaining data and facts" when it comes to policy-based solutions to county health issues.

"We've had a lot of great conversations about resource allocations and looking at using the resources we have strategically and appropriately to have the maximum impact per taxpayer dollar," Mendiratta said.

As the county and Health Department enter a new post-pandemic era, Wamp said he's looking to better connect the department's work to other areas of county government.

For example, he said the Health Department encounters a significant number of young parents and pregnant moms, which he said is an "incredible educational opportunity" to improve childhood reading ratings.

"One of the things that I get real passionate about is all the touch points in county government -- from a Health Department working with mothers to the juvenile court system that encounters families in all types of different predicaments to a large public school system," he said. "So that's the continuum that over the next four years we're going to spend a lot of time thinking about -- how we can tie together some of these functions of county government that aren't really talking to each other."

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673. Follow her on Twitter @ecfite.

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