Of Public Health and Purpose

Flathead County Health Officer Joe Russell will retire at the end of the month after 30 years in public health. His tenure has dramatically changed the valley's public health system.

By Molly Priddy
Flathead County Health Officer Joe Russell, pictured on May 30, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

When he started at the Flathead City-County Health Department more than 30 years ago, Joe Russell already had plans for his future: to become the county’s health officer.

It was 1986, and the young Russell had just finished his sanitarian certification, allowing him to work in Kalispell, where his wife Renee had taken a job with Kalispell Middle School.

His first jobs with the county would entail environmental health work, such as restaurant inspections and air-quality monitoring, among others. But his eyes were always on the top post, Russell said in an interview last week, which he’s held for the last 20 years.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, public health is the science of “protecting and improving the health of families and communities” through preventing problems, recommending policies for health care, and administering services and conducting research. This contrasts with clinical professionals such as doctors and nurses, who focus on treating people after they’ve fallen ill or injured. These services are offered in the Flathead Community Health Center, a part of the overall health department.

Russell, 58, plans on retiring this month after three decades working in and for Flathead County’s public health services, with his final day on June 23.

He sat in his office last week and reflected on his time with the county, noting that one of the largest public health changes during his tenure — the construction of the Earl Bennett building and subsequent Flathead Community Health Center — is a good representation of how he hoped to do his job from day one.

“If you look at this building, I think it depicts a lot about our public health system,” Russell said. “It’s a big, sturdy building. When people walk into this building, I want everyone to be treated like they own it, because they do.”

When he started with the county in 1987, Russell and his wife were fresh off their studies at Montana State University in Bozeman. Renee would be a teacher, and Joe would go on to finish his master’s program in public health from the University of Washington.

The master’s degree came in 1991, around the same time Russell took the job as deputy health officer. He still had a passion for environmental health but knew he could facilitate more from the boss’ chair. He would eventually get the top job with the county about six years later.

“Within the year, we started a strategic plan with the Board of Health,” Russell said.

Along with ideas about how to more efficiently deliver public health services, that plan covered an idea that had been in the works for years: a new building for the health department.

Making it an eventual reality — along with adding a third story in 2006 and a skybridge to the new South Campus Building in 2017 — was part of the philosophy Russell adopted from a book that became his intellectual framework for public health, the 1988 release “The Future of Public Health” from the Institute of Medicine.

“That book changed how I dealt with issues in Flathead County,” Russell said.

In it, the book says the core functions of a public health system are to assess the community and determine its needs; develop policy to meet those needs; and assure that such services can be sustained.

“I probably have lived the core governmental functions from day one,” Russell said.

Russell also noted that he and his staff approached the animal shelter with the same mindset when it came under county control in 2007. The live release rate at the shelter is now 97.25 percent, a definite change from the shelter’s previous policies that had staff euthanizing 73 percent of the cats and dogs. The idea was to promote vaccinations, control sanitation standards, and impose infection control, and it worked not only in the animal shelter, Russell said, but also in the health department and clinic.

Proactive public health is the key, Russell said. Identifying issues before they become problems is part of the strategic plans that the department, health board, and the hospitals still craft.

It’s a collaborative process, which Russell said is key in public health. His staff had to buy in on the principles he wanted to practice, and Russell said he’s worked with some of the best people around.

“We look at where’s the need in our community and what do we need to do about it,” Russell said. “It’s about putting a lot of good people on the bus and then driving it.”

Tom Livers, the director of Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality, got to know Russell when Russell served on and as the chair of the state Board of Environmental Review.

Russell captained the board for 12 years through rough waters, such as the debate over coal-bed methane or regulating mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, which Russell considers one of the proudest moments in his career.

“Under his leadership, we navigated some pretty contentious issues,” said Livers, who was a deputy director at the DEQ in 2002 when he met Russell. “Joe served under four governors, two Republicans and two Democrats, and I think that really speaks to the respect that people have for him.”

“I can honestly say that working with Joe is one of the highlights of my career,” Livers added.

Under Russell’s leadership, the health department assumed responsibility for emergency medical services, which had been running on about $40,000 a year provided by the local hospitals. EMS is now under county control, funded through three county mills.

The Flathead Community Health Center also received national Public Health Department Accreditation in 2016 from the Public Health Accreditation Board, an arduous, years-long process that means the Flathead City-County Health Department’s performance was measured against a set of nationally recognized standards and strives for the continual development of public health standards.

Russell also took particular pride in the fact that his department has expanded with growth over the years but has not asked the taxpayers for more money. Construction projects in the past have received funding via loans from Glacier Bank, Russell said, which were paid back quickly.

“We’ve never asked the community for an extra dime,” Russell said. “We’ve always lived within our means.”

Hilary Hanson, the deputy health officer and Russell’s eventual successor, said Russell has been an invaluable mentor the last three years, and she feels comfortable moving forward with the same core values.

“I’m not envisioning major changes to the direction we’re going,” she said. “I have been lucky enough to work with Joe for over three years now and he’s been an amazing mentor to me.”

Major projects that Russell started will continue, Hanson said.

“A lot of this work started under Joe — he’s the one who got this going and developed the relationships. Now my role is to keep them going,” she said. “I will absolutely be doing things my own way but it’s really just furthering the vision that he’s put forward.”

Retirement doesn’t mean removing himself from public health. The week after he officially retires, Russell plans to attend a conference with the National Environmental Health Association in Denver.

“I didn’t want to wander aimlessly,” Russell said, laughing.

He’ll also continue teaching three courses for the National Center for Biomedical Research and Training, two of which he developed himself. But talk to him long enough, let him loosen up a bit, and the real goals for retirement start pouring forth.

He and his wife have a place on McGregor Lake, where Russell is known to slalom waterski. It’s a passion, and at 58, he wants to keep up his training.

“At 70, I want to get behind a boat and stand up on my double-booted slalom ski,” Russell said.

But until June 23, Russell’s priorities remain with the Flathead City-County Health Department, as they have for decades.

“There has not been a day in 30 years when I got up in the morning and didn’t want to be here,” Russell said.

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