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Public health is essential

Mid-Ohio Valley residents are familiar with the concept of boom and bust — though in this part of the country, even the promised booms turn out to be more like little pops. But the nation as a whole is experiencing another boom right now in the field of public health. Billions upon billions of dollars have been dumped on local and state public health agencies as a response to the coronavirus pandemic, because that is what politicians do in this country. They throw unfathomable sums of money at a problem once it becomes too urgent to ignore, without much thought to whether a smaller but stable stream of funding would leave agencies better prepared, and better able to prevent some challenges.

When it seems as though the coast is clear, even the more modest sums dedicated at the federal level to public health are raided when members of Congress think the money would help them somewhere else. The cycle leaves state and local health departments struggling to meet the most basic needs of their community, and entirely unprepared for crises that require bigger staffs, better technology and access to more resources.

“We need funds that we can depend on year after year,” said Dr. Mysheika Roberts, the health commissioner of Columbus, Ohio.

According to a nationwide Associated Press investigation, some small health departments pay employees so little they qualify for public assistance, while also being charged with meeting the health needs of the public they serve.

It is an urgent enough matter that it has leant itself to sneaky language that may do more harm than good.

Brian Castrucci, CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, which advocates for public health, said Congress’ giant influx of cash in response to COVID-19 was “wallpaper and drapes.

“I worry at the end of this we’re going to hire up a bunch of contact tracers — and then lay them off soon thereafter,” Castrucci said. “We are continuing to kind of go from disaster to disaster without ever talking about the actual infrastructure.”

Ah. There it is. Public health funding is essential. It is not infrastructure, nor are many other projects being lumped into discussion of a bloated monster of an “infrastructure” bill that might, at this point, be too big to pass.

Some lawmakers understand that, and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is part of an effort to create SEPARATE legislation that would eventually provide $4.5 billion annually in core public health funding. Lawmakers should work toward a bipartisan solution to develop a stable, sufficient funding source for our public health agencies. When it comes to funding state and local public health organizations, Congress must not be willing to send them into another bust.

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