Restaurant inspections, health education and screenings for sexually transmitted diseases and tuberculosis are some of the services at risk due to an Erie County Department of Health budget shortfall.
As Kevin Flowers reported Thursday, the county Health Department’s financial problems are twofold. The state has cut $234,000 from the county’s budget, which runs through June 2014. Because the county is required to match state funding dollar for dollar, the cuts actually will amount to at least $468,000.
The Pennsylvania Health Department is itself under financial pressure. In March, Michael Wolf, secretary of health, proposed consolidating 60 state-run health centers that serve rural residents into 34 centers. That action would have required the district office in Crawford County to close, but the State Employees International Union, which represents nurses, sued to block the closings. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued an injunction in July to halt the consolidations.
Erie County doesn’t have a district health office. Instead, it operates its own health department. But the state finances the bulk of the county Health Department’s budget — $5 million of the $6.5 million budget for this year. Cuts in state funding have been a challenge for the county Health Department for years, even as the need grows to tackle public health problems in our region.
On June 14, for example, we reported that the number of active tuberculosis cases had increased from 2011 to 2013, compared to 2007-2010. County Health Department officials stressed that the increase in TB patients didn’t pose a health risk, but it’s not hard to imagine that cuts to health education programs could lead to an increase in communicable diseases.
On July 22, we reported that Erie County was experiencing a “mini-outbreak” of syphilis, with six cases reported in July. That’s as many STDs as normally occur in a year, Charlotte Berringer, R.N., director of community health for the county Health Department, said then. Sexually transmitted diseases are serious, and syphilis can lead to life-threatening complications. Syphilis can be easily treated, but only if the patient has been screened and then has access to treatment.
The county Health Department also inspects every restaurant and business that sells food at least once a year. We publish the inspection results weekly in the Erie Times-News and on GoErie. These inspections give Erie residents peace of mind when they dine out. It’s also reassuring to know that vendors at Erie’s many fairs and festivals have followed proper food-safety procedures.
“We are going through all of our programs and services and making a determination about how we can provide basic services. … We will definitely be cutting or restricting some programs,” Andy Glass, director of the county Health Department, said when Erie County Council discussed the impact of the funding cuts.
These steep cuts require the attention of our legislative delegation to Harrisburg as well as Erie County officials. Public health is everybody’s business.