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Miss. health department seeks significant jump in state funding

On lists where first is worst, Mississippi has the kind of health statistics that make public officials shudder.

The state is first in obesity, first in infant mortality, third in adult smoking. After decreasing for several years, the numbers of syphilis and tuberculosis cases are increasing.

The interim state health officer, Dr. Ed Thompson, told lawmakers Monday that the Department of Health needs more nurses and disease investigators to tackle some of its toughest public health problems.

“We simply don’t have enough basic, front-line public health workers,” said Thompson, who has led the department since early July.

Lawmakers this spring ousted Dr. Brian Amy, who had been state health officer since 2002. They also restructured the state Board of Health. The changes came amid complaints that the department had been slow in releasing public information about disease outbreaks and restaurant inspections, among other things.

Thompson was state health officer from 1993 to 2002 and left to work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Along with his current temporary job leading the Department of Health, Thompson is chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. A newly restructured state Board of Health is searching for a health officer.

Legislators are starting to work on a state spending plan for the year that starts next July 1. Thompson said the department’s budget request is $16.4 million more for the coming year than the $36.9 million it is receiving from the state now. Almost half of the requested increase would be to fill what the department calls “critical vacancies.”

The Department of Health funding comes from several sources:

— The biggest chunk of money comes from the federal government and from fees charged to people who use the department’s services.

— The second-largest source of money is the state general fund — the largest part of the state budget. That’s where Thompson is seeking the 44 percent increase.

— The Department of Health also receives money from a health care trust fund established after the state settled its massive lawsuit against tobacco companies in 1997.

— In the current year, the department also is receiving money that previously had gone to a private, nonprofit group for anti-tobacco education and smoking cessation.

Rep. Steve Holland, chairman of the House Public Health Committee, said the Legislature over the past four years has cut the state’s general fund support of the Health Department by 34.7 percent. Holland is part of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, a group of seven House members and seven senators who have the greatest influence over state spending.

“I tell you without hesitation or reservation … this Legislature better put its emphasis on public health,” said Holland, D-Plantersville. “If it does not, we’re going to be in an abyss in this state that we can’t even crawl out of.”