After nearly 36 years of service to Wabasha County, Judy Barton is retiring from her position as director of public health. Her dedication and commitment to public health has proven her a champion for the growth, development, and improvement of rural health care.
“In school, I fell in love with public health,” said Judy. “I liked the idea of working with the entire community instead of just one person at a time. That seemed to be where we could make the biggest impact.”
Following her initial work as a nurse with St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Wabasha and St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester, Judy began her career at Wabasha County Public Health. Since then, she has witnessed nearly four decades of change and advances to public health in rural Minnesota.
“We have become much more engaged with the communities and the providers and partners within those communities,” said Judy. She added that increased community engagement has been essential to the shifting focus from individual care to population health.
When Minnesota passed legislation in the late 1990s requiring Medical Assistance recipients to move to managed care plans, Judy and her staff at Goodhue and Wabasha County Public Health—a joint agency at the time—were uncertain about the decision’s impact on their communities. Judy said they were concerned not only for their citizens’ access to quality care and services, but for the economic impact as well.
“Many of our local health care providers, eye doctors, dentists, and so on were at risk of losing their contracts with the health plans,” said Judy. “We were concerned our constituents wouldn’t be able to receive the quality care they deserved.”
Together with leaders, directors, and workgroups from other communities, Judy helped put together an alliance of Minnesota counties that would form their own health plan—what would one day become South Country Health Alliance. This county-based purchasing model would allow participating counties to create a health plan and tailor services to meet the specific health care needs of rural residents.
Judy said she helped advocate this new plan to county commissioners and state legislators, touting the particular value of the unique, collaborative relationship between counties and the health plan.
“Actually having input into the operations of the health plan is invaluable,” said Judy. “We can make South Country aware of what our residents’ needs are, and South Country can then tailor their programs to better serve us. We can reinvest funds back into our communities to improve and add services for our residents.”
South Country Health Alliance was successfully established in 2001, and Judy continued to work closely with the health plan—even as she started Wabasha’s own public health department, independent from Goodhue County. Judy said she is pleased with the progress South Country Health Alliance has made since its launch 15 years ago.
“South Country has grown tremendously over the years,” said Judy. “They offer more services in-house, which has led to better services for members. It’s working the way us sitting at that table many years ago hoped it would.”
After retirement on June 30, Judy plans to spend time with her family and volunteer at the local elementary school.
We congratulate Judy for all her accomplishments and thank her for the central role she played in the creation of South Country Health Alliance. Judy’s dedication to the communities she has served is admirable, and we wish her all the best in her retirement.