Health grant change may hurt some counties

Several Georgia counties could lose at least 40 percent of their state grant-in-aid money for public health under a new formula being rolled out this year.

Chatham County, home of Savannah, could lose under one estimate more than $1 million, or 50 percent of its previous allotment. Other counties potentially losing a big chunk of these state funds include Ware and Glynn in southeast Georgia, Bibb (home of Macon) and Dougherty (Albany).

The state grant-in-aid formula is changing this year after being frozen since 1970. The formula was revised to reflect three components: a county’s population, the number of people living in poverty,  and the county’s overall poverty rate.

Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, the commissioner of Public Health, told agency board members Tuesday that the new formula is being phased in gradually while a University of Georgia study is under way to evaluate the effects of the changes.

The grant-in-aid shifts were discussed at the Public Health board meeting along with the overall financial squeeze that the new agency faces.

In July, as a result of legislation, Public Health became a standalone state agency, partly to give it more visibility and clout after years of budget cuts.

“We simply don’t have enough money in public health,’’ Fitzgerald told board members. She said the department would ask for an additional $1.3 million from the governor’s budget to keep the “losing” counties at their previous grant-in-aid levels.

Grant-in-aid money is part of the public health money sent to health districts and counties.

Some metro Atlanta counties will come out ahead under the revised formula, said Russ Toal, a health policy and management professor at Georgia Southern University.

“It was appropriate to revisit it,’’ Toal said. “The question is, Do they have the right parameters?”

Toal said there’s a greater recognition of the need to fund public health in the state. He cited increases in the number of the uninsured, the unemployed and the elderly. “Many of them rely on public health to address their needs,’’ he noted.

State officials also told the Public Health board of the need to renovate or replace some state facilities, including a state laboratory in Albany, built in 1946, that has a problem with mold and dampness.

The director of the state’s public health laboratory, Dr. Elizabeth Franko, said there are 31 lab job vacancies, many of them for medical technologists. “Our salaries are not competitive,’’ she said. “There’s a national shortage of medical technologists.’’

The lab screens Georgia newborns for diseases, as well as running tests for diseases, illnesses and toxins that range from E. coli to tuberculosis and rabies.

“Our budget has been cut,’’ Franko said. “We’re doing more with less.’’

And the cutoff of a federal grant has led the state to end its funding for a program to help prevent heart attack and stroke.

Here’s a recent GHN article about the closing of a Lowndes County primary care clinic due to a funding shortage.