Public health a separate agency?

One fascinating story to watch in the upcoming session of the General Assembly is whether the state’s public health program will become a stand-alone agency.

Legislative approval of an independent agency would follow last year’s creation of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, which was broken off from Human Resources (DHR) amid the uproar over problems in the state mental health system.

The state’s Public Health Commission is recommending that the long-underfunded public health division – which moved a year ago from DHR to the Department of Community Health – gain its own agency. The panel’s final report is due Dec. 1.

A stand-alone agency would give public health more visibility and hopefully more funding, says Dr. Phillip Williams, dean of the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health, who is also chairman of the commission. Public health “is not getting the recognition it needs or the funding it needs,’’ Williams says. “If you don’t have a voice at that table, how can you compete to get your slice of the pie?’’

Public health has a long list of functions and duties —  from screening for infectious diseases and giving health checkups to children to inspecting restaurants and sewage systems.

“Public health affects the lives of every single person,’’ Williams says. “Everyone drinks the water, breathes the air, eats at restaurants.’’

An independent agency, though, may be hard to sell to some legislators. “It will be a tough budget year,’’ says Bert Brantley, spokesman for outgoing Gov. Sonny Perdue. Brantley acknowledges the importance of public health, and says making mental health a stand-alone agency proved a success.

But he also says, “Starting up a new agency and new funding will be difficult. There are administrative costs that come into play.’’

State Rep. Mickey Channell (R-Greensboro) has a different perspective.  “I think being in an umbrella agency slows things down, and you waste time and money in the process.’’  A public health agency can be more efficient and focused, and less wasteful, Channell says.

Money is something that public health in Georgia has long needed. 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 health statistics, meanwhile, continue to be alarming. Partner Up notes that we’re 40th among states in infant mortality, 43rd in pre-term births and 47th in the prevalence of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and hepatitis. The state trails only Mississippi in the percentage of children 10 to 17 who are obese.

The political leadership of the state has continually failed to support these crucial community needs, said Public Health Commission member Jim Peak at a recent hearing. “This is beyond politics. This is about saving people’s lives. ….We need an agency that’s accountable.’’