GUEST COMMENTARY: Public health funding is critical for the future of America

Sunday, November 4, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST

In communities across the country, we are seeing more people change the way they care for their health by limiting tobacco use, eating healthier and becoming more physically active with the support of public health programs. Collectively, we are taking steps to improve our health and the health of our loved ones due in no small part to the tremendous impact public health has had on our lives over the past decade.

Yet, it's hard to believe that in a nation that holds such promise, nearly 1 million Americans are still dying every year from diseases that could be prevented. Our recent advances are being dangerously, and perhaps irrevocably, compromised by recent budget cuts to proven community-based health programs.

One critical piece of the puzzle that could save millions of lives lies in improved funding for the public health system. The nation's public health system is supposed to be designed to keep people healthy and prevent disease. It is vital to our everyday lives. It is responsible for ensuring that the water we drink, food we eat and air we breathe are safe. The future of our nation's health depends on a strong and properly equipped public health infrastructure at the community level and in cities and towns across the country.

Unfortunately, the current system is a patchwork of services, programs and regulatory authorities that is neither designed for optimal performance nor funded for sustainability and success. At a time when Missouri's budget shortfalls are facing even tighter restraints, federal, state and local health departments are being asked to do more with less. The capacity for health professionals to prevent and respond to some of today's pressing health challenges or simply provide basic public health and preventive services is in grave danger.

Devastating effects loom for Missouri's communities. According to a new White House report, unless Congress acts before the end of the year, public health programs face across-the-board cuts of roughly 8.2 percent if the pending "sequester" is allowed to take effect in January 2013. Created as part of the Budget Control Act, the sequestration is the result of the failure of Congress to pass a balanced deficit reduction plan to cut $1.2 trillion in the next decade. It is critical that Congress pass a balanced plan that does not make additional cuts to nondefense discretionary programs, which includes public health funding. It should be noted that the cuts facing public health programs will be even greater if certain lobbying groups are successful in holding the Pentagon harmless in this reduction. Under that scenario all of the cuts will fall on the back of nondefense discretionary programs and the millions of Americans that are severed through public health efforts.

The nation needs an unwavering investment in public health funding that will support life-saving programs and services that have long been underfunded in Missouri. Rebuilding public health infrastructure means improving community-based health and strengthening the capacity within public health departments. With a substantial increase in public health funding, we can strive to be the healthiest nation in one generation.

It's time to act on what we know is the right thing to do. For the Missouri congressional delegation the message is clear: The long-term health consequences, including costs, will far outweigh the short-term savings. Research show how vital this is: For every $1 invested in proven community-based public health programs, $5.60 is saved, according to Trust for America's Health.

Congress must develop a bipartisan and balanced deficit reduction proposal that prioritizes pubic health. We cannot afford to wait. The future of our nation's health is depending on it.

Bert Malone is chair of the Legislative Advocacy Committee for the Missouri Public Health Association.

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