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‘Takes us out at the knees’: California local health officials warn against cutting funding

A registered nurse works on a computer while assisting a COVID-19 patient in Los Angeles.
Jae C. Hong
AP Photo
A registered nurse works on a computer while assisting a COVID-19 patient in Los Angeles.

County public health leaders from across California assembled Monday to call on the state Legislature to preserve an annual $300 million in funding for state and local departments that began in 2022, in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To reduce the state’s nearly $28 billion deficit, Governor Gavin Newsom is proposing a number of cuts to the budget, including the annual Future of Public Health funding. A third of the $300 million goes to the state, and two thirds go to the counties.

“For decades the approach to public health funding had been ‘Neglect. Panic. Repeat,’ said Michelle Gibbons, executive director of the County Health Executives Association of California. “We thought we had broken that cycle as part of the 2022 budget act.”

Gibbons said local health departments have hired over 900 positions, including communicable disease investigators, public health nurses and laboratory personnel, with the promise of sustained funding for those roles.

“The bottom line is that if we lose this funding people will lose their jobs and work will not get done,” said Yolo County Public Health Officer Dr. Aimmee Sisson.

Sisson said Yolo received $1.4 million in FoPH funding this fiscal year, accounting for approximately 5% of the county’s Public Health budget. The money is more flexible than other sources of funding, which are generally earmarked for a specific disease.

Sisson said the money has allowed the county to hire a farmworker health coordinator, and implement their wellness vending machines, which provide free health supplies like COVID-19 tests, emergency contraception and mosquito repellent.

Sisson is also concerned about possible future pandemics. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the current public health risk presented by the avian flu H5N1 is low, the agency has noted bird flu viruses could have pandemic potential.

“We potentially end up in a situation very much like the early days of Covid-19 and really the early years of Covid-19 addressing that pandemic without enough work force, without enough trained people, without the infrastructure that we need to respond,” Sisson said. “It essentially takes us out at the knees.”

Newsom addressed the elimination of the extra public health funding last week while presenting his latest revision to the upcoming state budget.

“This is a program that we wish we could continue to absorb and afford," Newsom said. “We have a shortfall. We have to be sober about the reality of what our priorities are."

The governor instead pointed to what he called “unprecedented” investments in the state’s Health and Human Services Department and Medi-Cal, California’s version of Medicaid, the low to no-cost health insurance.

There’s still time for changes to happen — the Legislature has to approve a spending plan by June 15, and Newsom has to sign it by midnight on June 30.

I’m interested in how health care policy impacts Sacramento and California, who gets access to care and the issues facing health care providers.
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