The La Crosse County Health Department’s new five-year health plan, an ambitious venture that makes mental health and substance abuse its two top priorities, is steps ahead of other such ventures, Health Director Jen Rombalski said.

“This isn’t just a plan that only managers know about,” Rombalski said of the blueprint, unveiled July 13 after the County Health and Human Services Board approved the prior night.

Involving department staffers and community members in formulating the plan has created “momentum and energy, and we’re already doing something,” she said during an interview.

Among those actions is the work of the La Crosse County Heroin and Other Illicit Drug Task Force, she said, adding, “The health department doesn’t want to steal the momentum of the task force” but rather, build upon it.

On the other hand, the department expects to be a major player in deciphering needs and establishing policies to advance the plan, Rombalski said.

Ranking as No. 3 on the priority list are social determinants of health, an umbrella category that includes an array of social, economic and environmental factors, such as education, stable employment and safe homes and neighborhoods, that contribute to individual and community health.

“One thing that I might say was a bit of a surprise was that many people think of chronic illness and physical health first” in such evaluations, while those involved with the plan cited those social determinants high enough to rank third, Rombalski said.

They realized that basic needs such as access to transportation, child care and housing heavily influence people’s health, she said.

“That was very insightful of our community. We know that without basic needs met, we can’t move the needle to improve health,” the health director said.

The Community Health Improvement Plan, also referred to as CHIP, is based in part on a Community Health Needs Assessment, which in turn drew information from Great Rivers United Way’s triennial Compass Now study.

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Also poured into the funnel for the report were individual interviews with representatives of several groups, including aging/elderly/disabled; homeless/impoverished; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer; minorities, including African-American, Hispanic, Hmong and Native Americans; veterans, and youths.

Three community forums — in the towns of Farmington and Greenfield, as well as the city of La Crosse — in January also were fonts of information, according to the final CHIP report.

“I’ve been involved in several health plans, and this feels different to me,” she said. “Something is happening here and something is getting done.”

Education, collaboration and policy development will be the vehicles to ensure improvement in county residents’ health, she said.

Initiatives to bolster mental health and control substance abuse will include efforts to identify and publicize the range of options available to help those afflicted with either, Rombalski said.

For example, at a time when psychiatrists are in short supply, and Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare even shut down its inpatient mental health care, the plan will seek to convey the message that many mental health needs actually don’t require a psychiatrist’s care, she said.

“How many people who have mental health issues are struggling with housing?” she said. “If we rectify that, it can ease their depression.”

Highlighting the comprehensive list of options can connect people to the proper resources, she said.

“Having lots of options doesn’t mean adding services but might include other things that are less costly and more sustainable,” Rombalski said.

“Support can be built in to not only help themselves, but their neighbors, too,” she said.

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