Bill moving to clean up Public Health ‘mess’

With just a few days left in the 2011 Georgia General Assembly, several bills with health care ramifications are in still in limbo, with uncertain outcomes.

Not so, apparently, with House Bill 214, which would create a stand-alone department for state Public Health. The legislation sailed through the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Monday, and now heads for the Rules Committee and the chamber floor. It has already passed the House.

The Division of Public Health ‘’is just in a mess,’’ Rep. Mickey Channell (R-Greensboro), the lead sponsor of the bill, told the Senate panel before the vote.

Currently, the Public Health unit is part of the Department of Community Health, which handles the Medicaid, PeachCare and state employees’ health plan, among other programs. Until 2009, it was part of another large agency, the Department of Human Resources.

An example of Public Health problems could be seen in a breakdown in the state’s system for tracking data on infant mortality, which the AJC reported Saturday. The state Office of Vital Records’ medical files on infants under age 1 year were only 7.2 percent complete for 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found, according to the AJC. That Vital Records Office is part of the current
Public Health unit.

Community Health has worked to eliminate the data backlog, an agency spokeswoman told the AJC.

A recent independent audit, meanwhile, found several problems in Public Health’s financial controls. When Public Health moved from another agency to Community Health in July 2009, the switch created financial documentation problems, noted the audit by Metcalf Davis and Mauldin & Jenkins.

In addition, Georgia Health News reported in November that a state spreadsheet showed that three managed-care companies owed a combined $12 million to Public Health for children’s vaccines. That situation had not been resolved as of early March.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s health statistics have long lagged those of other states on measures such as infant mortality, child obesity and cardiovascular disease.

Public Health, with a $600 million budget and more than 1,000 employees, has undergone budget reductions in past years, and Georgia trails other Southeastern states in per capita spending.

Public Health has a long list of functions and duties — from giving health checkups to children to inspecting sewage systems. The push to establish a stand-alone agency follows the recommendations of a study commission last fall.

If passed, the legislation would elevate the unit to an independent department reporting directly to the governor, with its own board and commissioner.

A possible Tea Party challenge to the legislation may still be forthcoming, but so far hasn’t stopped the bill’s march through the Legislature.

Supporters say HB 214 would give needed visibility and clout to an area that for years has been neglected and shortchanged on funding. “It’s a historic bill,’’ said Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford), the panel’s chairman.

Public health ‘’has been ignored,’’ Channell told the Senate panel. In its own department, he said, “it will get the attention it deserves.’’