Proposed cuts ‘devastating’ to health departments

WHEELING – A local health administrator believes Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s proposed 25-percent reduction in funding to county health departments would have a devastating effect on public health in West Virginia.

“A reduction of 25 percent for the state aid that supports local health departments is tremendous … 25 percent to any local health department is devastating,” said Howard Gamble, administrator of the Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department.

The Wheeling-Ohio County Board of Health has called a special meeting at noon Jan. 29 to discuss the governor’s proposal and health-related bills introduced in the Legislature.

Chad Bundy, president of the West Virginia Association of Local Health Departments, said Tomblin’s proposed 2017 budget, which begins in July, eliminates $4 million in aid to local health departments.

Bundy is asking departments to hold emergency meetings to determine how the budget cuts might affect them. Gamble said the association and member departments want to educate elected leaders of the impact on local counties and public health as a whole.

Gamble said they have received no indication of why the proposed cuts are so deep.

“We didn’t see that large of a cut in any of (the Department of Health and Human Resources) budget,” he said. “It may render some of our local entities incapacitated to do their public health responsibilities.”

If local services are curtailed, overall costs to the state could increase, according to Gamble.

“There might not be as many clinics for a certain disease or infection or they might not have the manpower to track disease. That affects public health in general,” Gamble said. “Local departments may have reduced services, times, staff, etc.”

Noting that local health departments rely on state funds to operate, he said, “We don’t have a mechanism to make up for that. Most budgets are a mix of support from the state and local agencies and counties, grants and fees that are set by the state of West Virginia that we’re allowed to charge. Those combinations of funds and costs make up an entire budget. When you lose 25 percent of the largest source, it’s extremely difficult to fill that void.

Counties that do not receive 25 percent might not function. … There is not another place to go after those dollars.”

Gamble said his department relies on state aid to maintain the workforce it has. In addition to offering multiple nursing programs and immunization clinics, county health departments conduct environmental services such as inspection of food service operations in commercial establishments, day care centers and schools.

“If they’re not there, there’s no other entity that can step in to do those services,” Gamble said.