An alert on health cuts given

Health director warns that state budget crisis might hurt health programs.
Sunday, December 7, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:55 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 30, 2008

Budget cuts are coming, possibly spelling trouble for Missourians in need of health care.

That was the message delivered by Dick Dunn, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, on Friday as he spoke to 10 nurses at MU’s Sinclair School of Nursing. Dunn’s appearance in Columbia was part of a 112-county speaking tour he’s been conducting since July to get the word out about the impending state budget crisis.

“Since 2001, we’ve lost 23 percent of our budget. We went from $106 million to around $80 million,” Dunn said Friday. “The misconception is that we’ve got plenty. The reality is that we don’t.”

The Missouri Nurses Association sponsored Dunn’s visit. Nurses are advocates for quality health care in the state, so it’s important that they stay informed of issues that could negatively affect funding, said Belinda Heimericks, MONA executive director.

“By raising awareness of these issues, we’re better able to give legislators direction for priorities in budget allocation when their session begins in January,” Heimericks said.

At the start of the 2004 legislative session, the Missouri General Assembly will face a budget shortfall of about $1 billion, according to predictions from the state budget office. Dunn said funding for health programs has endured sharp cuts in recent years, and if legislators aren’t careful, it will only get worse.

Last year, Dunn said, budget cuts eliminated state funding for sexually transmitted disease control and prevention programs, as well as the Alternatives to Abortion program, which provided family planning and comprehensive women’s health. He said since the budget cuts, sexually transmitted disease rates have risen and 33,000 women who were not eligible for Medicaid lost access to health care.

Dunn speculated that if further cuts are made in 2004, the state could see a reduction in senior services, such as meals and transportation, forcing more senior citizens to move to nursing homes. Local public health agencies, which took an 11-percent cut last year, could face even further deficits, he said.

Dunn said funding shortages could also affect Missouri’s preparedness for the outbreak of “new” diseases, such as SARS, West Nile virus and monkeypox, as well as common ailments such as tuberculosis and influenza.

Because only the General Assembly can increase or decrease funding to state programs, Dunn has been encouraging people across Missouri to contact their legislators with concerns about the state of health care. He said nurses and other health professionals could play a vital role in educating lawmakers.

“There isn’t a bad person in (the General Assembly) who wants to hurt people, but we need to inform them,” Dunn said. “We need to help the community stand up with us. We can’t do this alone.”

Kristin Metcalf-Wilson, a women’s health nurse practitioner on faculty at MU’s School of Nursing, said she attended Dunn’s speech because she’s seen the effects of past budget cuts first-hand. With the elimination of the Alternatives to Abortion program last year, Metcalf-Wilson was forced to stop providing care to 400 women in a local health department, some of whom she’d treated for six years.

“The Department of Health and Senior Services predicts something like 8,000 unintended pregnancies in Missouri due to the elimination of our program,” Metcalf-Wilson said. “We took the hit last year. What’s going to take the hit this year?”

The Department of Health and Senior Services is planning an open information session at the state capitol in Jefferson City on Feb. 24. Organizers hope to “fill the capitol” during the event, educating legislators and the public about the services the department provides.

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