Economy Could Imperil State Readiness

By: - December 9, 2008 12:00 am

Budget cuts could undermine the progress states have made to respond to public health emergencies and natural disasters, such as the recent wildfires in California and outbreaks of Salmonella on tainted vegetables that sickened more than 1, 440 people in 43 states, says a new report released Dec. 9.

The report, ” Ready or Not? Protecting the Public’s Health from Diseases Disasters and Bioterrorism, ” faulted the federal government for reducing disaster preparedness funds for states and localities by one-fourth from levels of 2005.

“The 25 percent cut in federal support to protect Americans from diseases, disasters and bioterrorism is already hurting state response capabilities,” said Jeff Levi, executive director of Trust for America’s Health , which along with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released the report.

States, for example, are no longer receiving any supplemental funding for pandemic flu preparedness, despite increased responsibilities, the report said.

The Trust is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that has received funding from The Pew Charitable Trusts, which also funds, for other projects, but not this report.

The groups also warned that future state budget cuts could imperil public safety following a year in which 11 states have already cut their public health budgets. “The cuts to state budgets in the next few years could lead to a disaster for the nation’s disaster preparedness,” Levi said in a statement.

States are facing their worst budget climate in decades. The National Conference of State Legislatures recently reported states will have to find additional spending cuts of $32 billion for current budgets before even beginning to tackle $65 billion in deficits shaping up for the next fiscal year. States have already closed a $40 billion gap since the start of the fiscal year, which was July 1 for all but four states.

Georges C. Benjamin, a physician and executive director of the American Public Health Association , pointed to “substantial backsliding in funding” for preparedness. “If this is how we have treated this [funding for preparedness] in relatively good times, what is going to happen now that we are in a national economic crisis?” He said while the country has not slipped back to its pre-Sept. 11 days, the report’s finding show the country at a “pre-crisis” in the amount of funds and attention devoted to emergency readiness.

Three years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast region, the report shows Louisiana is among the best prepared to handle public health emergencies and natural disasters, while Arizona is among the most ill-equipped.

New Hampshire, North Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin also scored high while Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, Montana and Nebraska had the lowest scores, according to the 120-page report.

The groups looked at 10 factors including whether a state has adequate plans to distribute emergency vaccines; can handle lab specimens, such as suspected bioterror agents, on a 24/7 basis; and has laws that limit the liability of businesses and nonprofits that serve in public health emergencies.

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