Medicine for hemophilia. Screenings for breast and cervical cancer. Caring for critically ill pregnant women. Patient advocates and medical groups urged the state to...

Medicine for hemophilia. Screenings for breast and cervical cancer. Caring for critically ill pregnant women.

Patient advocates and medical groups urged the state to sustain or boost funding for these programs and many others, as the Department of Public Health’s board held a hearing Tuesday seeking public input on possible budget cuts.

No one spoke in favor of cuts, but they will be hard to avoid. Gov. Nathan Deal’s Office of Planning and Budget recently ordered state agencies to propose budgets with a 3 percent spending reduction, both for the current fiscal year and in fiscal 2014.

Public Health was created as an independent agency under a state law passed in 2011. During its first year, it launched new programs to combat obesity and infant mortality, among other health problems.

“Obviously Public Health has made real progress this year, and we want to make sure we make progress in the coming year,’’ said Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, the Public Health commissioner, as she opened the board hearing.

But with annual state funding of $187.8 million, a 3 percent reduction means the agency must find millions of dollars to cut. And Public Health has already suffered major budget hits over the past decade.

In addition to warnings about budget cuts’ impact, the hearing also gave a glimpse of the many functions of Public Health in the state and its financial support for crucial programs. 

Jeff Cornett of Hemophilia of Georgia testified that Public Health funding for hemophilia treatment helps prevent patients from ending up in emergency rooms, ‘‘which would cost millions and millions of dollars.’’

The maternal and infant care program subsidizes care for critically ill pregnant women and children, and further reductions could lead to hospitals withdrawing, said Paul Browne, director of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at Georgia Health Sciences University in Augusta. Georgia has one of the worst rates of maternal mortality in the nation, he added.

Kesha Clinkscale of the March of Dimes noted the state’s rate of infant mortality is also high. “Please ensure adequate funding for efforts to reduce infant mortality in Georgia,’’ she told the hearing.

Angie Patterson, a cancer survivor and oncology research advocate, said ‘‘now is not the time to lessen our focus on cancer.’’

Testimony also focused on programs that groups say need budget increases from current levels.

* Dr. Bob Wiskind, president of the Georgia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said funding is needed to update the Georgia Immunization Registry, which identifies children who are behind on immunizations.

* Matt Ryder of the Georgia Pediatric Health Improvement Coalition said many children don’t have access to subspecialists in rural areas of the state.

* Jeff Graham of Georgia Equality noted that Georgia has one of the highest HIV infection rates, and that the state should continue helping patients get medications early in the course of their disease.

* Dr. Robert Geller of the Georgia Poison Center said the staff reductions have led to an increase in callers hanging up while waiting for someone to answer a poison query. He said the center’s budget is about $150,000 short in state funds.

* Donna Davidson of Easter Seals said more funding is needed for the program Babies Can’t Wait, which helps infants and toddlers with developmental delays or disabilities.

Public Health said recently that the agency has high job vacancy rates for nurses, as well as epidemiologists, environmentalists, nutritionists and laboratory personnel.

At the heart of the public health system are nurses, who help prevent chronic disease, administer immunizations, educate patients and conduct emergency planning, among many other duties.

“The workforce is dwindling,’’ said Cathalene Teahan, president of the Georgia AIDS Coalition. “It is essential that we stop the attrition of public health nurses.’’

The Georgia Breast Cancer Coalition said many women are on a waiting list to be screened for breast and cervical cancer at public health departments. “Women who could be getting treated can’t get through the door,’’ said Linda Lowe, representing the coalition. “Health departments have to have funds to pay nurses to do screenings.’’

Dante McKay of the advocacy group Voices for Georgia’s Children said Public Health should be exempt from budget cuts. Mary Frances Williams of Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition of Georgia agreed.

“Public Health has been cut so much over the years,’’ she said. “I don’t think you should cut anybody.’’

Like other state agencies, Public Health will deliver its budget proposals to the Office of Planning and Budget on Sept. 4.


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Andy Miller

Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News

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