The Department of Public Health’s commissioner said Tuesday that she remains worried about two agency problems: funding and workforce vacancy rates. But in her...

The Department of Public Health’s commissioner said Tuesday that she remains worried about two agency problems: funding and workforce vacancy rates.

But in her progress report on Public Health, a year after its launch, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald also listed several accomplishments of the new agency, including initiatives to reduce the state’s high rates of obesity and infant mortality.

“I’m enormously pleased by the incredible work done’’ by public health employees, she told the agency’s board at a meeting.

Public Health, formerly part of the Department of Community Health, was made an independent agency in July 2011 through legislation passed by the General Assembly.

The health unit had been mired in what state Rep. Mickey Channell (R-Greensboro) called a mammoth state agency, where it endured years of budget cuts. Channell spearheaded the legislative fight to end what he called “the mess’’ surrounding public health and create a separate agency.

Fitzgerald noted Tuesday that the agency was set up without additional funding, and that Gov. Nathan Deal and the Legislature kept its budget at its existing level for the current fiscal year.

But she pointed out that potential state funding cuts could lead to a reduction in federal funding, because the latter is often contingent upon Georgia maintaining a certain level of money for programs. “I’m very concerned about money,’’ Fitzgerald said.

Public Health also has job vacancy rates of up to 27 percent for epidemiologists, nurses, environmentalists, nutritionists and laboratory personnel, she said.

“Our vacancy rate is too high,’’ said Fitzgerald, though she later added that the agency is working on establishing a “career path’’ to help retain employees.

In her report, she also listed several accomplishments in the agency’s first year. They include:

* Reducing the state’s infant mortality rate.

* Improving Public Health’s information technology.

* Helping coordinate the state’s anti-obesity campaign.

* Increasing the number of tobacco-free schools.

* Removing fraudulent stores from the WIC program.

* Establishing a tuberculosis plan.

* Consolidating grants management under one office.

* Reducing the number of Georgians waiting for government help to get HIV/AIDS medication.

Russ Toal, a health policy expert at Georgia Southern University, and formerly a longtime state health official, told GHN on Tuesday that Public Health has indeed made much progress in the past year.

“It is a more efficient, forward-facing organization,’’ Toal said. “The governor, the General Assembly, Dr. Fitzgerald and her staff get a great deal of credit for taking an organization in crisis and putting it on a solid foundation. The future of public health in Georgia hasn’t looked this bright in a long, long time.’’

Toal added that while funding challenges remain, “there appears to be much greater recognition of the critical role that public health plays in the health of the state.”

Here’s a recent GHN article on how the federal health reform law affects public health in Georgia.


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Andy Miller

Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News

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