Clark County health agency dodges budget ax

Core services to be funded, but outside cuts worry director

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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At least one local agency isn’t fretting over the governor’s proposed budget cuts: Clark County Public Health.

County health officials are relieved by the governor’s proposal, which will maintain funding for core public health services.

“For Clark County Public Health, I was really relieved with the budget the governor submitted,” said John Wiesman, public health director.

But when he looks outside of his organization, at the proposed cuts to health services for some of the state’s most vulnerable residents, he’s less pleased by what he sees.

“Truly with the budget being proposed where chemical dependency treatment is being eliminated, where mental health is reduced, basic health is eliminated, these are not good choices,” Wiesman said.

“They impact the most vulnerable in our communities,” he added. “I think we all need to be concerned about that.”

Late last month, Gov. Chris Gregoire released her all-cuts budget. A week later, the Legislature reconvened for a special session to select cuts from a menu of programs — this time to bridge a projected $2 billion deficit by mid-2013.

Prior to releasing the proposed budget, Gregoire indicated she would eliminate Blue Ribbon Commission funding. Those funds — about $10 million statewide each biennium — are distributed to counties for core public services. County health officials determine which of their county services receive the money, Wiesman said.

“It’s some of our most flexible funding, which allows us to put the priorities where they are in our local community,” he said.

The governor’s all-cuts budget didn’t ax the Blue Ribbon Commission funding as initially feared. That’s not to say legislators won’t decide to eliminate the funding. But county health officials across the state have made maintaining the flexible funding a top priority.

“This is just making it over the first hurdle,” Wiesman said. “There’s still education that has to happen with House of Representatives members and Senate members to make sure they understand the importance. Everybody still has their work cut out for them.”

In Clark County, it amounts to more than $600,000 per biennium. In the past, the money has been used for the county’s communicable disease program, which does prevention work and provides support during outbreaks; increasing immunization rates through education and collaboration with providers; and chronic disease prevention, Wiesman said.

The governor’s budget had at least one more bright spot: it allowed the Washington State Department of Health to use unspent tobacco prevention funds to restore the state’s Tobacco Quitline for uninsured or under-insured residents, Wiesman said.

For the past six months, the quitline was limited to callers with private insurance or Medicaid due to budget cuts.

“If that had gone away, we would have been the only state in the country to not have that resource,” Wiesman said. “And that’s very disheartening.”

If reductions in the governor’s budget pass through Legislature, Wiesman said he’s anticipating statewide cuts to county-provided health services like HIV/AIDS outreach and prevention, and oral health services. How deep those cuts could go is still unknown, he said.

“While for Clark County Public Health I’m relieved,” Wiesman said, “This budget is not a budget that I think anybody can feel good about.”

Marissa Harshman: http://twitter.com/col_health;http://facebook.com/reporterharshman;marissa.harshman@columbian.com; 360-735-4546.