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Op-ed: Budget woes put public health at risk in Utah

By Kathryn Marti

First Published Aug 16 2014 05:57 pm • Last Updated Aug 16 2014 05:57 pm

Across the United States, people are limiting tobacco use, eating healthier and becoming more physically active, all with the support of public health programs. Our public health system ensures that the water we drink, food we eat and air we breathe are safe. The future of our nation’s health depends on a strong and properly equipped public health infrastructure in communities across Utah, at the state level and nationwide.

The nation’s public health system should be efficiently designed and adequately funded to keep the most people healthy and disease-free. Yet the current system is an ever-changing patchwork of services, programs and regulatory authorities that neither results in optimal performance nor is funded for sustainability and success. Its capacity to prevent and respond to a health emergency or simply provide basic public health and preventive services is dangerously shrinking. Utah’s funding for public health currently is far too low to meet the state’s needs.

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According to a recent report, "Faces of Austerity: How Budget Cuts Hurt America’s Health," funding constraints have forced the elimination of the Center for Birth Defect Research and Prevention in Utah. This reduction will significantly weaken birth defect research and diminish our infrastructure to examine and respond to emerging health concerns of pregnant women and their infants.

The report also highlighted the need for Utah’s emergency management system to coordinate with the state’s public health system. In the Southwest Utah Public Health Department that serves 215,000 residents and 3.5 million visitors annually, there is evidence of disaster in the making. This agency receives little local or state support for its emergency preparedness activities and relies mostly on funding through the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Emergency Preparedness (PHEP) program. Substantial cuts to the PHEP budget have resulted in drastically reduced numbers in health department staff and its ability to coordinate in preparedness activities.

The Ebola outbreak in Africa is a terrible catastrophe, but one that might leave Utahns believing that a serious disease outbreak could never happen here. We only have to look at Utah’s rising numbers of West Nile virus infected mosquito pools to know differently. No human cases of West Nile virus have been detected but public health officials are warning Utah residents to avoid complacency. When it comes to disease outbreaks, our national, state and local public health systems are our best and most important defenses, with surveillance, reporting, preparedness and emergency responses all playing a vital role.

Funding for the public health system is critical. Yet as a result of Congress’ failure to act, public health programs at the CDC, Health Resources and Services Administration and other agencies are being severely impacted by current and future spending caps that will be further reduced by additional spending cuts, known as sequestration.

These austerity measures result in cuts to state and local public health programs that will compromise our nation’s health, security and economic growth. Most federal public health funding flows directly to state and local health departments and their partner agencies. Unless Congress finds an alternative solution to reduce the deficit more funding for vital public health programs will be on the chopping block for the next decade.

It’s time to act on what we know is the right thing to do. For Utah’s congressional delegation, the message is clear: The long-term health consequences from budget shortages will far outweigh the short-term savings.

The public health community strongly urges renewed public health funding. Congress must develop a bipartisan, balanced deficit reduction proposal that prioritizes public health. The future of our nation’s health depends on it.

Kathryn Marti is a public health nurse and board member of the Utah Public Health Association.

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