Face to Face 01.26.17

Jimenez is gamely balancing the demands of her previous post as assistant director along with her new duties.

Elsa Jimenez likes to point out that the Monterey County Health Department has a scope so broad it includes puppies. The county’s second-largest department, with a $240 million annual budget and 1,000 employees, has a mission not only to make sure residents get access to health care and remain safe from environmental dangers, but also encompasses Animal Services, and Jimenez is in charge of it all.

Previously serving as the assistant director, Jimenez stepped into the role of interim county health director in February 2016, after former director Ray Bullick retired; she was unanimously approved as the permanent director on June 7 by the County Board of Supervisors. The Prunedale resident and King City native is married with two young daughters and a young-adult stepson.

Jimenez finds herself leading a comprehensive agency going through a major transition that’s been ongoing for several years and is happening across the entire profession, she says. Through the Health in All Policies initiative (a global movement that started in Europe a few decades ago), health departments around the country aren’t just making sure everyone gets their shots, they are increasingly serving as policymakers focusing on how to create healthy communities.

Working for the good health of Monterey County’s 430,000 residents is challenging – and it could be even more so if the Affordable Healthcare Act is repealed by the new GOP Congress (see story, p. 12), but Jimenez remains optimistic and excited about public health.

Weekly: What are the biggest challenges the Health Department is facing?

Jimenez: From an environmental perspective, access to safe and high-quality water will always be an issue. We do regulate certain water systems in our community, and our role is to ensure that the water being pumped out of those systems is safe for drinking.

Another big issue for the Health Department is addressing the issues of homelessness. Studies have shown that even if people are linked to a primary care physician, if they don’t have a roof over their head they aren’t going to improve in their health outcomes. Other issues include advancing Health in All Policies across all sectors, as a means of investing to achieve longer-term savings not only in dollars, but in the quality of life of individuals.

What exactly does Health in All Policies mean?

Traditionally, Health Departments were the service providers. They had clinics, provided immunization clinics, travel clinics.

As a health department, we have to assure those services are available to residents. In the last seven years or so, we’ve really started looking at helping individuals have healthier lives so they can avoid needing those services, really moving toward primary prevention efforts.

Can you describe a specific example of Health in All Policies in action?

With the Tanimura & Antle housing development [for farm workers] they put up in Spreckels, the Health Department was at the planning table looking at what they were [designing], and making sure there was green space incorporated into it. In the end, there is a community room where service providers can go so people can get [diabetes tests], for example, and we can host workshops on nutrition and physical activity. It can be a central gathering place so residents have a place where they can actually build up some community. When we say Health in All Policies that’s what we’re really talking about.

What other ways is the department proactively promoting better community health?

Three years ago, the Health Department moved forward the early childhood development initiative [now called Bright Beginnings] to our Board of Supervisors for consideration, and they approved it, so for the last two and a half years we’ve been funding Bright Beginnings to really focus on and strengthen all the services for the 0-5 population, making sure there are high-quality services so these children are starting off on the right track.

Investing in those early years we really see as a progressive primary prevention effort to have the building blocks so we have a healthier community.

How do you stay healthy?

(Laughs) Oh, my gosh. Well, I try to eat well. I think that’s something I always strive for. I wish I was more physically active. I’ve been doing this for almost a year know, both my old job and my new job… so I have a lot of learning to do, and I try to balance as much as possible work and life.

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