Public Health cites progress despite problems

The state public health workforce has double-digit job vacancy and turnover rates. The recently created Department of Public Health, like other state agencies, is feeling the squeeze from 2 percent across-the-board budget cuts ordered by Gov. Nathan Deal.

But despite the grim financial and personnel news, the department reported some successes Monday at its first board meeting. The agency opened as a standalone unit in July.

Board members were given an update on the fledgling organization and its myriad of programs, from restaurant inspections and emergency preparedness to immunizations and disease investigations.

The workforce gap – a longstanding problem for public health – was demonstrated in a review of recent nursing statistics.

Last year, the state had 1,424 public health nurses, down from 1,700 in 1990, even though Georgia’s population grew by more than 3 million during the 20-year interval, said Carole Jakeway, director of district and county operations.

Nurses are considered the backbone of public health. They perform duties that include monitoring and preventing disease, offering health education, and providing direct health services to residents, such as immunizations.

Low salaries have helped lead to an exodus of nurses and other public health workers, Jakeway said. She cited one experienced public health nurse who took another job that paid $25,000 more.

The vacancy rates have led to cutbacks at clinics and longer wait times for services, she added.

The commissioner of Public Health, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, said she is concerned about “the safety net being frayed.’’

The department budget’s eliminated funding for a program to prevent heart attack and strokes. Fitzgerald, after the meeting, said she hopes private-sector programs will be able to take up some of the work in helping Georgians manage hypertension.

The agency will ask the governor’s budget officials for additional money to soften the effect of funding reductions on certain counties, and for lab testing of HIV and syphilis, two major public health concerns in the state.

Officials also said an anti-fraud initiative in a federal nutrition program for low-income women and children is paying off. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) “is a lot healthier than it has been in the past,’’ said Brian Castrucci, director of maternal and child health. (Here’s a GHN article on the state’s WIC fraud-fighting campaign.)

The state’s breastfeeding rate is higher (a good sign for the health of infants and their mothers), and Georgia has obtained federal funding to reduce infant mortality, Castrucci said.

Georgia is also formulating a statewide plan to combat obesity, Fitzgerald said.

Scott Maxwell, legislative educator for the Georgia Public Health Association, said Monday that the nurse vacancies are at a critical level, given the increases in the state’s population and poverty rate.

But he and other advocates say the new department has created more visibility for health problems that got little public attention for decades when public health was part of huge, bureaucratic state agencies.

“Now at least there is a focus on the issues in public health,’’ Maxwell said.