Public health services suffer in a shutdown

UPDATE: Since the following article's publication in the June 28 print edition of The Dispatch, a tentative agreement on a new state budget has been announced by budget negotiators in the Legislature. A vote by legislators on the proposal was expected on June 30, the deadline for approving or a budget or forcing a partial shutdown of state government.

By Pat Jenkins
The Dispatch
Public health services for children and pregnant women in Pierce County could be put on hold if a political stalemate in the Legislature leads to a temporary shutdown this week of state government.
There will be a stoppage if lawmakers fail to pass a new state budget by the deadline of June 30, which remained a possibility at the end of last week. That would disrupt "essential" public health programs starting July 1, according to the head of the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.
Without a state budget, the Health Department would temporarily lay off 42 workers assigned to 14 programs that depend on state funding. The programs include child and maternal health such as prenatal care, emergency preparedness and response, and STD/HIV disease testing.
Other Health Department work that would be affected without a budget deal includes testing for communicable diseases and water contamination. Both rely on state laboratories, which would close during a government shutdown.
The county agency has contingency plans in case of a shutdown, but “this political impasse puts the health and safety of our residents at risk," said Dr. Anthony L-T Chen, director of the Health Department. “Even a temporary delay in state funding damages our ability to protect the public’s health."
Disputes between Democrat and Republican legislators over specifics of a new two-year budget have stopped one from being approved, leading to a third special session for lawmakers being ordered last week by Governor Jay Inslee in an attempt to reach a settlement on a new spending plan before the old one expires.
According to the state Office of Financial Management, about 32,000 state employees could be laid off and services by 38 state agencies – ranging from social services to parks – would be limited or stop entirely if a budget isn't adopted in time.
In past years, the Legislature has reached 11th-hour settlements on budgets that prevented shutdowns.
This year, even a partial state government shutdown would disrupt anti-disease efforts and water-quality testing in Pierce County, Chen said. It would limit the public health system’s ability to control any outbreaks of diseases such as tuberculosis, mumps, E. coli and whooping cough. A shutdown would also delay testing for bacterial water contamination, which can affect local shellfish and people who eat them, Chen said.
He said state funding for the Pierce County health agency that would dry up without a budget is approximately $8 million, or 23 percent of the department’s total budget of $34.5 million for 2017.
The department gave this account of state funding cuts that officials said would affect Pierce County residents:
• Home visits to ensure women have healthy pregnancies and babies get a healthy start in life would stop. The department would lose 11 nurses who work with families in need of pre-natal and early-childhood parenting support. Clients would risk premature birth, low birth weight, bad pregnancy outcomes, and child abuse and neglect.
• Children would go without basic dental care for tooth decay and preventative care like tooth sealants.
• People with gonorrhea, syphilis and chlamydia, and their sex partners, wouldn't get tested because the ability to investigate sexually transmitted infections would be halved. They would remain unaware of their infections and untreated, likely suffering permanent health consequences. This would likely raise Pierce County’s already high STD rates, which disproportionately affect low-income and minority populations.
• The public would be at risk of eating unsafe shellfish and swimming in unsafe beaches because there would be no monitoring of recreational shellfish harvesting or beaches for possible contamination.
If the shutdown lasted longer than two weeks, the Health Department would have to lay off more people effective July 15, Chen said. The impacts would spread to restaurant and food service inspections, plus inspections of septic and water systems, he warned.


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