Budget squeeze dooms public health clinic

Print Friendly and PDF By: Andy Miller Published: Sep 22, 2011

Starting next month, hundreds of uninsured South Georgians – most of them with chronic disease – will be looking for a new place to get medical care.

Public health officials are closing a primary care clinic at the Lowndes County Health Department on Sept. 30 because of budget problems.

The Valdosta clinic has been serving patients for more than a decade. The 400 to 500 low-income people who regularly get free services there are mostly middle-aged, and roughly 80 percent of them have diabetes or hypertension, says Dr. William Grow, who is district health director.

They don’t qualify for Medicaid or Medicare, he says. “These patients weren’t able to get care anywhere else.’’

The clinic runs an annual deficit of about $100,000 despite a grant from a local hospital of the same amount. A nurse practitioner who worked at the clinic left at the end of August, accepting an offer of a better-paying job, Grow says.

Facing state funding cuts on top of those other problems, public health officials had no choice but to close the clinic.

What’s happening in Lowndes County has played out in other areas of the state after years of tight budgets.

In the decade since 2000, the state’s per capita spending on public health has been reduced by 21 percent even as Georgia’s population has increased by 20 percent, according to Partner Up For Public Health, an advocacy group. Georgia trails other Southeastern states in per capita spending.

Dr. Beverley Townsend, district health director in the Columbus area, told an audience Wednesday at a Georgia Rural Health Association conference that the No. 1 challenge facing public health is funding.

Georgia health officials, though, have hope for better funding with the creation in July of a new, standalone Department of Public Health. And the new Public Health commissioner, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, has earned support and praise for her first months on the job.

In April, Fitzgerald noted that the state spends less than one-quarter of the money that Alabama spends on public health. Meanwhile, Georgia has about 1,000 job vacancies in public health, she said, including positions for nurses, environmentalists and lab techs.

Grow says steady cuts in state grants to the county helped drive the decision to shut the Valdosta clinic.

The state grant for the Lowndes County public health budget will eventually be cut by one-third, with the reduction phased in over the next seven years, Grow says.

Patients were given 30 days’ notice of the closure, and Grow and other nurse practitioners have been filling in during the clinic’s final days. Another clinic serving uninsured patients in the area, Partnership for Health, has a long waiting list, Grow says.

The public health clinic’s patients have been given a list of area physicians in private practice, though it’s unlikely that they can afford those services.

The fear is that many of them may end up in a hospital emergency room.

The clinic patients aren’t the only ones losing services in the area. A program to prevent heart attack and stroke is ending in the public health district, this time because of federal funding cuts, Grow says.

 

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