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Nassau unveils center for health care projects

Nassau's health commissioner is hoping a new county institute could be a ticket for innovation.

Called the Nassau Center for Health Initiatives, the not-for-profit foundation will enable the health department, using volunteers and donations, to undertake small pilot health projects, said Nassau Health Commissioner Dr. Maria Torroella Carney.

Carney presented the plan at a luncheon seminar Monday at Hofstra University.

The idea - taken from a similar foundation associated with New York City's health department - is to give health officials more flexibility to try small projects to see if they work and can be expanded countywide.

After Carney became health commissioner in late 2007, she said she had lots of ideas for programs she wanted to try. But she soon became frustrated with the county bureaucracy, better fitted for instituting and overseeing large-scale programs.

"We need new public health interventions for obesity prevention, for promoting physical activity, for nutrition education, for diabetes screening," she said. "But how do we do that? How does the health department do that?"

After about a year of meetings with New York City health officials and with local health and foundation leaders, Carney said she is ready to apply for a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit status for the center. It would be the second such center in the state, Carney said.

The idea has the enthusiastic backing of Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi, who said a public-private partnership was a smart way to attack the county's "thornier" health problems.

Carney said she has approached several organizations, including the Garden City-based Rauch Foundation, about funding. If money comes through, the county hopes to have the center begin its first project in six months or so.

Carney also hopes to tap into the county's Medical Reserve Corps, a group of more than 500 health care volunteers trained to help out in emergencies. The plan is for these volunteers to undertake the pilot projects. An administrator - not a county employee - will help coordinate. "This is one of the most innovative projects and one way to cut through the bureaucracy," said Dr. John Zaso, a pediatrician in East Meadow and the physician coordinator for the Medical Reserve Corps.

Kevin Dahill, chief executive of the Nassau Suffolk Hospital Council, who will sit on its board along with Carney, agreed. "I think Maria Carney has come up with a great idea here," he said.

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