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Health Department looking to streamline

MARY CURRIER

By BOBBY HARRISON / Daily Journal

Public Health districts will be reduced from nine to three to deal with budget cuts, state Health Officer Mary Currier explains in a YouTube video.

The YouTube video, directed to the about 1,800 employees of the Department of Health, outlines a pending reorganization, and a yet-to-be determined number of layoffs.

“We have to change our structure to continue to be able to efficiently do our core public health services,” Currier said in the video. “The entire agency will be impacted in one way or another.”

The office for Public Health District 2 is located in Tupelo and serves 11 Northeast Mississippi counties. District 4, based in Starkville, serves the rest of Northeast Mississippi.

Currier said in the video she hopes the reorganization is complete by the time the new fiscal year begins July 1. When asked about the video, Liz Sharlot, communications director for the Health Department, said the plan is to have three district administrators – one each for the Northern, Central and Southern regions – instead of nine, six district nurses instead of nine and six health directors instead of nine.

It was not announced where the three regional offices would be.

Other layoffs are likely.

“We have had significant cuts in state funding, and it will require a reduction in work force,” Currier tells employees in the video. She said the number of layoffs will be impacted by the number of retirements and vacancies, and the layoffs will have to be approved in June by the state Personnel Board.

Like most state agencies, the Department of Health has absorbed substantial cuts in state funding.

Because of sluggish revenue collection, the $6 billion state-supported budget approved by the 2017 Legislature in late March was $329 million less than the amount approved in the 2016 legislative session.

The Health Department was budgeted $36 million in the 2016 session, which already represented a cut of about $4 million. But in reality, as a result of mid-year budget cuts Gov. Phil Bryant made because revenue collections were not meeting projections, the Health Department will receive $31 million for the current fiscal year instead of the $36 million approved by the 2016 Legislature.

In addition, the 2017 Legislature budgeted $24.6 million for the fiscal year starting July 1, necessitating the reorganization and cuts.

Sharlot said the goal is “to assure the core public health service” within the available dollars. The Health Department cites its mission as “to promote and protect the health” of Mississippians.

In doing that, it provides a litany of functions, from tracking and combating various diseases and illnesses ranging from tuberculosis to West Nile virus to sexually transmitted diseases. It deals with issues related to pregnancy and infant mortality.

The agency also provides regulatory functions, such as inspecting restaurants and wastewater facilities.

Currier said the budget cutbacks most likely will impact programs. For instance, there might be an effort to transfer more services to medical home providers, which more people have because of expansion in Medicaid services provided by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Last year, the Health Department closed nine county clinics, including the Benton County clinic in Northeast Mississippi, and reduced the hours at many other county clinics because more people were being placed with other medical providers through the Affordable Care Act.

In that process, 35 full-time employees and 29 contract personnel were put out of work.

At the time, the Health Department said it was a positive outcome that more people were finding medical homes that could lead to better health outcomes.

As part of the new reorganization, in the video Currier gave the example that people might go to other health care providers for childhood immunizations, resulting in the Health Department having fewer vaccines in county health clinics.

“Our role will continue to be be, has to be the assurance of immunizations,” Currier said.

The bulk of the state Health Department’s funding – about 90 percent – comes from the federal government, but state funds play a vital role in many areas, such as wastewater and restaurant inspections.

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