The Executive Council for the West Virginia Association of Local Health Departments met Wednesday to discuss the effects of the proposed $4 million in funding cuts to local public health services for fiscal year 2017 as outlined in Governor Tomblin’s budget proposal to the legislature last week.
Council members fear this 25 percent reduction in funding will not only have huge consequences for daily operations, but also much more serious ones for the citizen who rely on public health services.
Michael Kilkenny, physician director at the Cabell-Huntington Health Department, said part of the responsibilities of local health departments is to monitor the general population for threats to public health.
“The proposed cuts would really cripple our surveillance efforts,” Kilkenny said. “We are mandated to watch for specific diseases and some of these diseases are a nuisance but some of these diseases are deadly. If we stop watching for those diseases, those diseases will spread, people will get sick and some of those people will die.”
Kilkenny believes these cut will end up costing the state money in the long run.
“I think everyone is well-aware that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Kilkenny said. “If we stop watching, if we delay our response to any disease outbreak, we’re going to pay the price on the other side by treating more people.”
Wednesday’s meeting brought health administrators and practitioners from around the region to discuss a contingency plan if the cuts are sustained.
Many voiced concerns that there is a misconception about what public health services do. These services are not individual-based services, but services designed to protect and promote the health of a community as a whole, such as managing an infectious disease outbreak, which Monongalia County’s Executive Health Director, Lee Smith, said are on the rise in West Virginia.
“Sexually transmitted infections are certainly on the up-tick in West Virginia, and some are related and co-infected with HIV,” Smith said. “Ebola, MERS, Dengue, Chicken Gunya, and now Zika are all part of our vocabulary. All of these are diseases that we have to deal with and you don’t get these services anywhere else. They are not at the hospital. They’re going to treat the active patient, but no one is going to surveillance, no one is going to do the monitoring other than public health.”
While many county administrators are pleading with Governor Tomblin to prevent the cuts, ultimately it is state lawmakers that will decide whether to follow through with his proposal.
One member of the Legislature, Republican Senator Chris Walters, is proposing a bill that will help the state pay for local health department services. His proposal calls for a reduction in the number of county health department administrators to save the state money and help continue to pay for the much needed services.
“The bill is a regionalization bill,” Walters said. “It does not regionalize the health departments, per se, it leaves the departments in their localities. It regionalizes the administration. Currently we have 49 administers for health departments across the state. I feel that if we did a regionalization of the administrators, we could start pulling these resources together have these departments start billing insurance. Currently, they’re just living off line-item tax-payer dollars and not actually billing the insurance companies, where they’d be able to bring in money as well.”
This bill also has another provision that create needle exchanges at rural health departments across the state.
Walters says he expects the bill to be introduced to the Senate tomorrow.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Benedum Foundation.