The population of Stevens County is less than 5,800, but its health department has more than 7,000 patients, and it's out of space.
Many of those patients are so-called Low German Mennonites, or Mexican Mennonites, said Paula Rowden, administrator of the health department in the southwest corner of the state. Typically they have come to Kansas from Mexico, looking for jobs on farms, feed lots, or in meat packing plants.
"They seem to be at the greatest risk. They're the ones that are utilizing the emergency room for medical care," Rowden said.
She said the Mennonites present a unique challenge because of their culturally restricted level of education.
"They don't typically educate children beyond sixth grade," Rowden said. "So you talk about people that really have difficulty comprehending complex health issues — this is a group that needs help."
The ancestors of Mexican Mennonites migrated from Germany to Russia and then to Canada. In the early 20th century, to avoid Canadian public school laws, they migrated from Canada to Mexico.
They began moving to Kansas in small numbers and appearing on the radar screens of health officials as early as the 1980s. They typically come from the Mexican state of Chihuahua looking for jobs and speak German, Spanish or both.
→ Read more about Mexican Mennonites in Kansas
According to a 2007 estimate by the Kansas Statewide Farmworker Health Program, there are likely 3,000 to 5,000 Low German Mennonites in southwest Kansas.
Rowden said what's needed are health education programs that address the education and language barriers. Examples would include classes that explain the importance of being vaccinated or how to manage chronic disease, such as diabetes or hypertension.
However, the county's 5,000-square-foot facility is out of room.
"We certainly don't have enough space to provide all the services we would like to," Rowden said.
By year's end, the health department expects to have twice the space thanks to a county-funded renovation project.
New space, more services
The $265,000 project to renovate an 11,000-square-foot building owned by the county is scheduled to start June 1.
The space being renovated for the health department is a soon-to-be-vacated 54-bed nursing home. On May 23, its clients will be moved to a new 80-bed nursing home.
The old nursing home has two wings, one of which is being renovated.
"We need this to capitalize on that prevention and health promotion piece that is so critical in people understanding how to take care of themselves," Rowden said.
She said no new staff would be needed to implement the health education programs, which she said could start as soon as the end of summer if the renovation is finished on schedule.
The new space also will create more room for existing programs that have drawn patients from neighboring counties and from the Oklahoma panhandle — namely laboratory services and those offered under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.
Rowden said the new space also would allow the department to pursue offering more dental services.
"We do fluoride varnish for children, but beyond that we have such a tremendous need," she said.
Rowden said she hoped to outfit one of the renovated rooms for more comprehensive dental care.
"The dental providers here are willing to consider collaborating efforts so they could provide services at the health department.
"When you look at reimbursement from Medicaid for dental services, it's very low. We may be able to contract with them to provide the services, so they don't have the overhead," she said. "It may not work, I don't know. It may be a pipe dream."
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