Budget woes could thwart South’s health safety

Published 12:47 am Thursday, December 11, 2008

If you’re a resident of Louisiana, North Carolina or Virginia, your state is likely better prepared to protect you from disease outbreaks, natural disasters and bioterrorism than other southern states, according to a report released Tuesday.

Looming budget cuts could threaten that security, no matter where you live.

Those three southern states — along with New Hampshire and Wisconsin — were among only five nationwide that scored a perfect 10 in the “Ready or Not? 2008” assessment by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Trust Fund for America’s Health, a Washington-based public health research organization. The sixth annual report measures whether states are well-prepared in 10 different categories, including food safety and the ability to detect disease outbreaks.

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In the southern region, eight states scored an eight or higher in the analysis — considered good. All twelve states in the region and the District of Columbia were lauded for having plans to distribute emergency vaccines, a lab to meet expectations for the state’s pandemic flu plan and someone to coordinate Medical Reserve Corps volunteers who have agreed to help their communities during public health emergencies.

Officials warned that economic turmoil in states already facing dramatic cuts could erase progress made in a number of states, where federal funding has been cut by more than a quarter since the 2005 fiscal year, erasing supplemental funding for pandemic flu preparedness.

“The economic crisis could result in a serious rollback of the progress we’ve made since Sept. 11, 2001 and Hurricane Katrina to better prepare the nation for emergencies,” said Jeff Levi, the Trust Fund’s executive director. “The 25 percent cut in federal support to protect Americans from diseases, disasters, and bioterrorism is already hurting state response capabilities.”

Dr. Leah Devlin, North Carolina’s state health director, told reporters on a conference call discussing the report that state and federal government officials will have to find ways to meet or exceed the markers.

“The consequences of cutting these resources and this infrastructure that’s there to protect health and improve health are too severe,” Devlin said. “We can’t put the public’s health and the public’s safety at risk because we have budget problems.”

An organization of state and local health officials echoed that concern. The National Association of County and City Health Officials said the report “sounds a warning that funding cuts threaten to undermine the strides in national preparedness made since 9/11.” Surveying health departments on how economic conditions were affecting their budgets and work force, that group says 27 percent of local departments are working under a budget that is smaller than the previous year.

At least 41 states either faced budget shortfalls this year or expect to face them next year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy and Priorities. Over half those states had already cut spending, used reserves, or raised revenues to balance their budgets for the current fiscal year.

More than half of states and the District of Columbia achieved a score of seven or less out of the report’s 10 indicators, including four southern states: Florida, Maryland, Mississippi and West Virginia. Mississippi, which scored a six out of ten, was one of only six states without a disease surveillance program that is compatible with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national system.

Maryland and Florida, coming in lowest with scores of five, failed to purchase their share of federally subsidized antiviral medications to prepare for a flu pandemic — which officials said is a serious concern.

“The containment of a pandemic must be a national priority,” said Levi, recommending that states in that situation should work with legislators to help fund such purchases. “Any differences in this capacity on a state-by-state basis put the entire nation at risk.”

Three southern states — Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina — got nearly perfect scores of nine out of ten.

The report also rated states for their preparedness for a food-borne disease outbreak, referencing a salmonella outbreak that sickened more than 1,400 people across the nation this year. Alabama was cited for below-average ability to identify what’s responsible for food-borne disease outbreaks. Six other southern states — Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, and West Virginia — and the District of Columbia also fell short in that category.

Regardless of their scores in the Trust Fund’s report, officials say all states will need to stay on high alert when it comes to their emergency preparedness, as money is stretched more and more thinly.

“We have enormous challenges, and yet the resources have been unplugged,” Devlin said. “So there continues to be a lot of work that needs to be done.”

On the Net:

Ready or Not? 2008 Report: http://healthyamericans.org/reports/bioterror08/