WEST CHESTER—Chester County has long been recognized as the healthiest county in Pennsylvania, in part because the county has a longstanding commitment to protecting public health.
The Chester County Health Department is one of only seven in the Commonwealth and one of the first to be established in 1968. These public health investments proved beneficial during the pandemic, when the county had the lowest COVID infection and mortality rates in the region.
Last September, county officials began making grants to local organizations using federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which awarded about $100 million in federal funding to the county. Applications for the grants tripled, and the county’s application review committee — made up of county residents and county government staff — reviewed each application, evaluating each application based on strict federal ARPA guidelines before making recommendations to the county commissioners for approval.
“Funds from the American Rescue Plan Act are generational investments in our community,” said US Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-6th, of Easttown. “As the federal representative of our community, I am proud to have voted for this important piece of legislation and I am very encouraged that these federal funds are being used wisely in our community. Make no mistake, lives and livelihoods will improve thanks to ARPA and I congratulate the Chester County Commissioners on their selection and congratulations to the organizations receiving these funds.”
Twenty-two million dollars in ARPA funding has been allocated to organizations focused on public and behavioral health.
“Investing heavily in the health of our residents has been a major priority for us, especially given what we have learned from the COVID pandemic,” said Commission Chair Marian Moskowitz. “Particularly early in the pandemic healthcare providers were just overwhelmed and it highlighted where the gaps in the system were and really helped us in our decision making on how to allocate these funds to ensure the most vulnerable are among those we are able to.” to access the care they need.”
ARPA funds dedicated to community health are invested in a variety of public and private initiatives that take a holistic approach to community health and seek to improve health outcomes in communities with fewer resources.
“Our ARPA selection committee has worked really hard to identify approaches that look at public health from a holistic perspective, including mental health care and factors such as poverty and nutritional and housing instability that can also contribute to adverse health outcomes,” said Commissioner Josh Maxwell. “These funds will help establish new programs, but also expand successful approaches already being used by community partners across Chester County. We wanted to be sure we were investing that money as wisely as possible, and we’re very proud of what those investments will achieve.”
Commissioner Michelle Kichline said a significant portion of ARPA funding will be used to expand access to behavioral health care nationwide. “Many lessons have been learned from the pandemic, and one of them is to place even greater importance in identifying and addressing mental health needs than our physical health needs. The ARPA funds allow us to invest in a new, comprehensive mental health care system that would otherwise have been unaffordable.”
Creation of a behavioral health crisis system
“I think the starting point is that mental and behavioral health needs have skyrocketed, particularly through the pandemic,” said Jason Alexander, co-founder of Capacity for Change, a consulting firm working with the county to provide access to expand mental health resources. “So the challenges that district departments are facing to create a better system is an overwhelming need.”
The county has brought together approximately 50 stakeholders from all sectors to provide input on what needs exist and how best to meet them. The resulting plan, paid for with ARPA funds, will have two main elements. The first is the establishment of a county-run behavioral crisis center that will give all residents 24-hour access to mental health services via phone, text message or chat.
The county will also establish mobile crisis response teams that can be deployed continuously across the county, working closely with law enforcement, first responders, schools and other organizations across the county to identify people in crisis situations and meet them where they need care to go let them need.
“This is really going to be a revolutionary transformational part of the system,” Alexander said. “It will significantly reduce the number of cases where either law enforcement needs to respond to a mental health crisis, or people with a mental health crisis show up in our emergency departments when they don’t have a physical health crisis, but they do have a mental health crisis. It will ease the burden on law enforcement and our hospital systems, which are meeting these crisis needs but are not truly prepared, trained, or funded to do so. And that ultimately benefits everyone because our systems are more effective at meeting the needs they are designed to meet.”
In addition to the new county programs, the funds will go to nonprofit organizations that have been working to improve community health so they can expand their offerings and expand existing programs to better meet the needs of the communities they serve become.
A partnership between the 2Fish Community Cafe and the Melton Center will allow them not only to enhance and expand existing programs, but also to expand into new areas. They began delivering charitable meals to those in need during COVID, but now offer free, healthy dinners once a week at the Melton Center in West Chester, where community members not only share a meal but gain access to Chester County Hospital for health and Wellness classes and checkups that can help them improve their overall health.
“Offering a free, home-cooked meal in a community setting prior to the health and wellness presentation is an added incentive that encourages people to participate,” said Lisa Morris, executive director of 2Fish. “Youth chef training and staff development were existing programs, but with this funding we can now afford to hire a full-time chef who will help us expand all of our food-related activities, including our community cafe, charity program and chef education .
“We just think this is a wonderful opportunity and we’re so grateful to the county for just believing in us,” Morris added. “We are very grateful for the support we have received from the commissioners, other officials and the community.”
The Coatesville Center for Community Health (CCCH) will use ARPA funds to launch its GRANDfamilies initiative, the first such program in the county. The program will support grandparents who are unexpectedly raising young children – particularly those living on low or fixed incomes – who need access to resources tailored to their circumstances and support in raising the next generation. In 2022, the program supported 56 families in Coatesville. With increased funding through ARPA, they expect to serve 90 families in 2023.
Reach families in poverty
“In everything we do, we keep in mind how we can stabilize and support people so they can raise healthy families that are productive and add value to the county,” said Kathryn Spurlock, executive director of CCCH. “We try to empower vulnerable families who live in poverty and often face unjust situations. By keeping children with their family members, we can help keep them out of the care system. This translates into a cost saving for the taxpayer and a better outcome for the family. We are very proud of the growing positive impact of the GRAND Family Initiative on the well-being of families in need.”
Parkesburg POINT will use its share of ARPA funds to expand its already popular and oversubscribed services, including sports and wellness initiatives and access to free healthy meals.
“We have about 650 students enrolled, and in any given week between 250 and 300 different students come through. And more than that at the weekend, so we’re addressing a need in the county, especially among the children who have been really, really underserved in the past,” said Dwayne Walton, executive director of the organization. “Our numbers from 2019, just before the pandemic, to 2022 have increased by 50 percent. This ARPA grant will help fund four new posts we have developed in response to COVID and allow us to better meet the needs of the children we serve.”
The Phoenixville clinic will use ARPA funds to go beyond physical medical assistance and launch the Phoenixville Community Behavioral Health Program in 2023. A behavioral health program manager and social worker will assist patients in need, improve overall mental health and well-being and empt mental health crises, an approach aimed at preventing the most serious outcomes, including suicides and the need for inpatient treatment in institutions.
“Behavioural and mental health is a big issue not just in this region but across the country right now,” said Christi Seidel, the clinic’s managing director. “Our goal is to help people get through the immediate crisis before they get into a much worse situation. And it’s very difficult for people to find support for behavioral health, especially when English isn’t your first language, which is around 60% of our customers. And we help many people who have a trauma. Sowe is here to support them.”
Community Volunteers in Medicine (CVIM) serves low-income, uninsured individuals who live and work in the county and do not have access to health care. It provides primary care, specialty care, access to medication, and dental services, including oral hygiene, all under one roof with the aim of keeping people healthy so they can work and support their families – and outside of local emergency rooms.
“Everyone suffers when the ER becomes overwhelmed with people who really only need first aid or specialty care, so it’s always been our goal to make that a priority here. We also focus on wellness, disease prevention and educate people by giving them the tools they need to take care of their own health concerns,” said Maureen Tomoschuk, President and CEO. “The ARPA funding really helps support our model and improve access to care.”