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Legislature likely to provide a fraction of public health officers’ budget request

Local health officials sought $286 million to combat health disparities; a budget bill includes $50 million
As the COVID-19 public health emergency fades, federal public health funding is shrinking, and local public health officials say they need state help. | PHOTO COPYRIGHT: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP (USED WITH PERMISSION)
June 20, 2023

With pandemic-related federal funding for public health winding down, Oregon’s county health officers asked the state to step up, saying the fight against health disparities depends on it.

But a bill that a key legislative budget committee passed on Tuesday morning produced mixed results. It erased a public health cut that the Legislature’s budget-writers had made to Gov. Tina Kotek’s proposed budget, but it met only a fraction of the funding local health officers and the Oregon Health Authority had requested.

The Oregon Coalition of Local Health Officials applauds the restoration of some funding in the bill, but “the bad news is that this is still much less than local public health needs, and this likely won’t fill the gaps the large counties are facing,” Sarah Lochner, executive director for the group, told The Lund Report.

Specifically, public health officials as well as the Oregon Health Authority had asked for $286 million to support public health modernization. The money, according to the agency’s request, would make “comprehensive investments across the public health system and (elevate) work that directly mitigates health inequities.” Conversely, according to the agency, failure to fund the request would endanger the state’s “ability to ensure basic public health protections included in statute are available to every person in Oregon.”

Later, in mid-session, public health officers lowered their request to $150 million.

Kotek’s proposed budget included $50 million in response to the request, which lawmakers’ budget bill then trimmed to $30 million.

Local health officers, however, hoped $40-$50 million would go directly to counties to support frontline public health efforts. While the legislative budget committee boosted the sum included in the bill to $50 million, only a third of it will go to counties — to be divided equally among them, regardless of population.

That will likely not be enough to stop layoffs from happening in larger counties, advocates said.

A spokesperson for Multnomah County did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

During Tuesday’s meeting of the capital construction subcommittee of the Joint Ways and Means, no explanation was provided for why public health funding in the bill had been boosted slightly.

However, public health officials had engaged in a letter-writing campaign to key lawmakers, with one saying “Oregon’s governmental public health system has been underfunded for far too long.”

Another bill highlighted in the letter was House Bill 2773, which includes one-time funding for public health workforce incentives to improve retention and hiring, and to address staffing shortages. The bill was stalled during the legislative impasse, and it appears unlikely to move, advocates said.

You can reach Nick Budnick at [email protected] or at @NickBudnick on Twitter.