Editorial: Fund Public Health — Seattle & King County, for much more than Ebola response
The work of Public Health — Seattle & King County is most visible during major health scares, but the department's day-to-day work is equally critical and increasingly challenged by a lack of funding.
Seattle Times Editorial
Ebola. E. coli. Enterovirus.
Those three terms have populated news headlines lately, and underscore the importance of a responsive public-health system.
So far, officials report Harborview Medical Center has not admitted any Ebola patients, although it stands ready to do so. After E. coli was found in the Mercer Island water supply, the city closed restaurants and ordered a boil-water advisory. Only one child was diagnosed with E. coli infection. And two children in King County have confirmed cases of enterovirus D-68.
Take a moment to appreciate Public Health — Seattle & King County. The agency’s epidemiologists, restaurant inspectors, health educators and others maintain a crucial and invisible infrastructure that keeps isolated incidents from becoming outbreaks.
They do this work, while major challenges loom ahead.
In the next biennium, the public-health department faces a $30 millionbudget shortfall. For the prevention division, composed of staff members devoted to minimizing communicable diseases, this means a potential loss of $4 million affecting the department's capacity to conduct disease investigations, combat obesity and tobacco use, inform the public and collect data to identify health trends.
“We’re able to respond, but I’ve got to say we are at a very thin place,” warns Interim Director Patty Hayes.
Public Health’s funding woes began more than a decade ago after voters repealed the state motor-vehicle excise tax. Neither state nor federal funding has adequately filled in the gap. Grants are limited. Costs are up. Revenue is not keeping pace with inflation or population growth.
A long-term funding solution for Public Health — Seattle & King County is overdue.
The Metropolitan King County Council plans next month to adopt a budget that takes effect in January. At a minimum, members should preserve prevention funding — $4 million represents a minuscule portion of the county’s $8.9 billion budget.
The bulk of the budget shortfall affects five public-health centers that provide thousands of poor women, children and infants with services ranging from primary care at some clinics to family planning, nutrition and maternal support services at others.
County leaders should be commended for cutting to the bone in recent years and finding partners such as Harborview/UW Medicine, Neighborcare Health and Planned Parenthood to take over some patient services in Columbia City, North Seattle and Greenbridge. County Executive Dow Constantine recently announced the Federal Way clinic would remain open, thanks to wage concessions from the staff and financial support from the city — but two other clinics in Auburn and Northshore in Bothell remain on the chopping block.
Public Health certainly needs the council’s support to maintain an invisible line of defense. In an era of limited resources, it also needs other community health providers to step up and help fill a gap in services.
The return on investment is a population that can live relatively free of health scares threatening other communities worldwide.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, Blanca Torres, Robert J. Vickers, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).