Kanawha health agency explores response to budget cuts

The Kanawha-Charleston Board of Health discussed ways its health department could address the severe budget cuts facing local health during its regular meeting Thursday.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2017, which begins in July, contains a line-item cut of $4 million for aid to local health departments, Chad Bundy, president of the West Virginia Association of Local Health Departments, told health officials last week. That $4 million represents a nearly 25 percent cut to local health funding, and would mean a 10 percent reduction to the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department’s budget, said Lolita Kirk, Kanawha-Charleston Health Department administrator.

“In looking at all the different options we have, we realized we could try working with our legislators and the governor to try to come to a solution, or we could come to the realization that the state’s fiscal situation is leading us to a point where we can expect more cuts like this,” said Kanawha health officer Dr. Michael Brumage.

The cut is likely one of the largest proposed for any area of the budget, and more severe than progressive cuts that have plagued other entities in recent years, said Martha Yeager-Walker, board member and former Department of Health and Human Resources secretary. Board president Brenda Isaac said the board should consider a two-pronged approach and push for a reduction to the cut while simultaneously exploring ways to increase revenue in order to offset the likely loss of funding.

Kirk said one of the ways health departments could try to bridge the gap would be to increase billing for services or, for some, to start billing for clinical services they had previously provided for free. The Kanawha health department currently bills for every service allowable under state law, but those policies exclude services like STD testing and current billing rates for local health departments are far below those of private clinics.

“Local health departments cannot bill in the same manner that your doctor can,” said John Law, public information officer for the health department. “Health departments are restricted for each fee they bill — it must go through a process and public comment, and be approved by the (commissioner for the Bureau for Public Health.) What we need to do is develop a method to streamline that.”

A bill has been introduced in the legislature that would allow health departments to bill for STD testing, Law said. The health department will also look at “creative ways” of generating funding, including pursuing more federal grant funding for programs like its harm reduction program, and looking into changing fees for its environmental services.

“I think if we approach it as ‘hey, give us the ability to take care of ourselves, let us bill more, let us do different things,’ I think it will be better,” Yeager-Walker said.

Kirk said the cuts will be felt by local health departments at the start of the next fiscal year in July.

Brumage also reported that the department had its largest turnout for its harm reduction/ syringe exchange program Wednesday. The department saw 31 patients, including patients from outside Kanawha County, and also saw its highest rate of used needle return since launching the weekly program in early December.

Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5189 or follow @lydianuzum on Twitter.

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