When I moved to Asheville, NC, 10 years ago, it had one of the best public health departments in the state, if not the nation. Its clinic saw everyone who had fallen through the cracks and its Project Access, operated through the Medical Society, helped uninsured, low-income people get free care from specialists and hospitals.
The Health Department had a program that offered free birth coaches to families in need.
Then, a few years ago, the county health department began to downsize. Today, the clinic is closed and a free clinic sees its patients — at least those who know to go there. Project Access accepts only the neediest because the number of uninsured has risen to such heights. The birth coach program is gone, although Life o’ Mike has developed its own program, using the doula who ran the original program as an advisor.
But the same thing has happened across the country. One of the first places governments make cuts is in public health. Across the country, Buncombe County’s experience is mirrored — or worse. Smoking cessation and prevention programs have been cut.
As the amount of money spent on anti-smoking programs decreases, the number of smokers is bound to increase again.
Public health is where we turn when diseases threaten — such as antibiotic-resistant forms of tuberculosis or hepatitis outbreaks. Spending on public health protects us from these and other threats. It helps assure us that restaurants are safe to eat in. It helps pay for flu shots and other immunizations that keep epidemics at bay.
Funding for public health efforts had been falling steadily since the 1980s until the terrorist attacks and then the anthrax scare. Money poured into shoring up our crumbling public health system.
But we as a nation have a very short memory, and instead of raising taxes to pay to protect us all, governments have slashed public health funding once again.
Public health departments and personnel are paid for with tax money because they protect all of us. Without that money, epidemics and food-borne illnesses become more likely, and they will be a lot more expensive than paying for an adequate public health system.