Discusses City's Public Health Concerns, Priorities
By Tiffany Rider - Assistant Editor
September 24, 2013 - "Think of it as colony without the 'n'," Kelly Colopy, director of the Long Beach Health and Human Services Department, said, explaining how to pronounce her name. The new director, arriving in Long Beach via Salt Lake City, has been on the job since September 1.
Colopy said it was a big move coming to Long Beach, but the job "seemed like the perfect match." She has 17 years of experience in health and human services, leadership development and cross-agency initiatives.
Long Beach isn't completely new to Colopy; her son lived in Orange County for a few years, so she spent quite a bit of time flying in and out of the Long Beach Airport for visits. "When I came out for an interview, I fell in love with the community," she said. "I was very excited to be invited back."
As one of only four cities in the California with its own health department (the other three being in Berkeley, Pasadena and Vernon), Long Beach offers services to support a community that has 22 percent of its population living in poverty and about 30 percent of its adults considered obese. Assistant Editor Tiffany Rider sat down with Colopy on September 18 to discuss her new role, her perspective on public health issues and her priorities for making Long Beach a healthier place to live and work.
LBBJ: How does operating our somewhat unique, citywide health department compare to your health administration work in Utah?
Colopy: It's fairly similar. Everybody structures a bit differently. Different programs fall under different bureaus, and they might have different titles, but overall the work that was being done is quite similar. For Salt Lake County, it was the human services department of which the health department was one of its agencies. Here it's the health and human services department, which has the health department and some human services work.
LBBJ: What do you consider to be the most pertinent public health concerns in Long Beach right now?
Colopy: I think that there are social determinants of health. When you live in poverty, if you live in communities that are under stress, and if you are under stress, those kinds of things have a big impact on your health. So there is the health piece of it, but there are also the social issues. There's work being done. There are a lot of great nonprofits and different organizations that are involved. The county has funding coming in. To start to wrap our arms around that in a better-coordinated fashion, to determine those social determinants of health, are going to be key moving forward.
When I think of health, I think of being physically and mentally healthy because if you're not healthy in both of those areas it's very hard to work a job. It has an impact on your employability and your income and all of those kinds of things. It's so important to the workforce how those situations are addressed, how we can effectively work with people in their mental health as well as their physical health. That's really one of the key areas I want to focus on: how we start to better integrate that in the services we are doing, and with our partners in the county as well.
For the health department itself, so often we are in the background. As long as everything is healthy, no one knows we exist. It's not until there is a concern that everyone notices us. What I'm hoping for, moving forward, is that people turn to us ahead of time about issues like food safety. Don't wait until there is a food problem; let's address things at the beginning. And we're out there inspecting restaurants and things like that, but how do we work in a better, preventive way, with our restaurants and other businesses to make sure that we are supporting them in their ability to be healthy? I think sometimes that we do such a good job in the background that people don't understand our importance and why it's great to have a local health department. We need to bring the health department more to the forefront as a prevention collaborator with our businesses.
LBBJ: Have you set any priorities for the health department, and if so, what are they?
Colopy: The health department already is doing so much great work. I'm learning about all of that, so I certainly have priorities I am working on. . . . For one, we educate people on what healthy food looks like, how to find it and how to cook it. Education is great, but you also have to be able to access it. We need to make sure there are community gardens around. How do we bring more farmers' markets into communities? Not only that, but how do we make sure that the front of the grocery store has oranges and apples and not potato chips? Those kinds of things provide access.
The other piece of it is the commitment. We may know every step we're supposed to take to be healthy, and then we don't follow through. So what is the support system we need to put together in collaboration with parks and recreation and community partners? Neighborhood walks? I don't know. We need a support system so there's that commitment and people are excited about it. Then they set goals, which give them a reason to be healthy, not because someone tells you to. A lot of work is being done and a ton of partners are at the table, so it's a matter of how we can strengthen it.
Also, in terms of housing, we work with the Long Beach Housing Authority. Homeless issues are also part of this department. We are working on providing better services to the homeless and making sure they are safe and have access to the services that they need. We want to provide as much opportunity as possible for those families who are on the edge of homelessness or need transitional housing. That's a key piece of what we're looking at.
We have a senior center here in the community, but we also have a lot of other services that I think are part of the social determinants that we can be supporting so seniors can live at home longer and healthier. It's been a county function, but I think that integration as we look at communities is important.
LBBJ: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Colopy: The health department is going through the process of being trained to do outreach and enrollment for the Affordable Care Act. If people are coming in for the Covered California or for the expansion of Medi-Cal, we will be supporting that process. The more that we can help people be covered, the better. It serves our mission.