Health administrators plead for state money

By Mark Fitton
Illinois News Network

SPRINGFIELD — What happens if Illinois doesn’t get funds flowing to local public health departments?

No one’s entirely sure, but public health administrators on Tuesday warned state senators some outcomes are dangerously unpredictable.

“How do you measure the cost of outbreaks that have yet to occur?” Miriam Link-Mullison told a senate panel meeting in Chicago.

No one testified against the measure to release millions to local health departments, but Republican committee spokesman Sen. Chris Nybo of Lombard said Illinois has to figure out how to pay for what it spends.

Nybo noted Illinois is spending at rate of perhaps $38 billion for fiscal year 2016 with only $32 billion to $33 billion in projected revenue.

“We can’t let ourselves keep getting in the position year after year after year where the cost of state government vastly exceeds our ability to pay for it,” he said.

Link-Mullison, Jackson County’s public health administrator, said Illinois 97 public health departments serve four broad functions: protecting health, preventing illness, promoting health and preparing for and responding to emergency health and natural disasters.

A third of the state’s public health departments, she said, have been cutting staff, eliminating programs and reducing hours of service, said Link-Mullison, who also is the president of the Illinois Public Health Association.

One public health agency serves the the state’s southernmost seven counties and has been reduced to offering services one day a week in five of those seven counties, she testified.

The net impact of local public health departments is hard to measure, but the responsibilities are wide, health administrators said.

Among other duties, they handle restaurant inspections, inspect private-source water and sewage systems, investigate disease outbreaks and arrange treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.

“We need this bill and then we need a responsible budget,” Link-Mullison told senators.

She said she’d been surveying the state’s local health departments and essentially asked, “How long can you last?”

“The answer is none of us can last as long as it’s probably going to take,” she said. “We need this bill, and then we need a responsible budget.”

Link-Mullison was one of several witnesses testifying in support of Senate Bill 2178, which would appropriate about $17.1 million in state general funds to the state’s Department of Public Health for local health protection grants.

Bill sponsor Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago said the amount is identical to the previous fiscal year’s funding and was also the amount named in the spring budget passed by legislative Democrats but vetoed by Gov. Bruce Rauner, R-Winnetka.

Proponents said the grant amount is a small amount of total funding health departments would receive if there were a state budget in place.

The governor’s office opposes the bill, which it views as another piecemeal attempt to force a massive tax increase, said Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly.

The joint hearing of the Senate’s appropriations and public health committees was for information-gathering purposes, and no vote was taken.

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