Our Voice: State health programs need a boost

Dr. Amy Person, left, Benton-Franklin Health District health officer, and Heather Hill, program supervision, hold various vaccine options for the flu.
Dr. Amy Person, left, Benton-Franklin Health District health officer, and Heather Hill, program supervision, hold various vaccine options for the flu. Tri-City Herald

Heading into this year’s legislative session, we all knew the focus would be on education.

With a court-ordered deadline looming, lawmakers have had to work their budget proposals around finding a way for the state to meet its constitutional duty to amply fund K-12 schools.

This approach, however, risks boosting resources for education at the expense of other essential programs and services. Of particular concern is what will happen to the state’s public health system in this budget cycle.

We know it is a challenge to cover all state needs, but programs that keep people healthy are critical community assets.

Public health is just as important as a well-funded education plan, and lawmakers should keep that in mind as they proceed with their budget talks.

Washington’s population has grown by more than one million people since 2000, but in that time the state public health budget has steadily dwindled, according to the state health website — Public Health is Essential.

Statewide, local health agencies have seen a per capita decrease from $65.15 in 1998 to $52.94 in 2014.

In the Mid-Columbia, per capita support for residents served by the Benton-Franklin Health District dropped from $6.52 in 2011 to $5.78 in 2015, according to the latest data available.

Dr. Amy Person, health officer for the district, said although the population in Benton and Franklin counties grew by 7 percent in that four-year time period, the per capita funding available to the district was reduced by 11 percent.

That is worrisome because it means that health departments throughout the state are not keeping up with the basic needs of residents.

Public health agencies provide a variety of important services, including immunizations, restaurant inspections, the tracking of communicable diseases and the testing of water samples. They also manage vital records like birth and death certificates, and they provide food worker cards.

Most importantly, perhaps, are the agency’s prevention and education programs. While the medical care system focuses primarily on treating people after they are ill or injured, the health department tries to keep people from getting sick in the first place.

But that is getting more and more difficult without proper funding.

Person said that with limited funds, the health department ends up “reacting to problems rather than preventing them from occurring.”

For example, between 2015 and 2016, gonorrhea cases rose 85 percent in Benton and Franklin counties combined.

That’s an alarming statistic.

Person said current funding only allows the bi-county health department to monitor and report these cases, and they no longer have the money to provide health education about the disease or follow up with providers to ensure that partners are being treated.

In addition, Person said a diabetes management program has been lost since the grant supporting it expired. The health department also has lost a maternity support program and home visits by nurses have been limited.

Officials with the state Department of Health knew lawmakers would have to make education funding a priority during this budget year, and took that into account when they made their $60 million request.

Of that amount, $50 million would be divided among local health departments, $6 million for the state health office and $4 million for a modernization program.

Gov. Jay Inslee, however, trimmed the health agency budget to $23.8 million, with $20 million going to local health departments and $3.8 million for the state health office.

We hope lawmakers see Inslee’s public health care budget as a minimum baseline, and not the starting point for further reductions.

Funding for public health has not kept up with the needs of Washington residents for years. It is time lawmakers find a way to turn that trend around.