The Republican health care plan moving through the U.S. House of Representatives guts a little-known fund that provides Georgia some $20 million a year, for things like immunization programs, preventing heart disease and strokes, and responding to public health crises.
The loss of the federal Prevention and Public Health Fund would deal a $891 million blow to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a major employer in the metro region. While the CDC sends the majority of that money to state health agencies around the country, the federal agency itself uses about $265 million. Used to fight Zika, Ebola and influenza, the money also pays for staff salaries and programs to stem obesity and smoking.
“If this funding is lost, Americans will be at greater risk from vaccine-preventable disease, food borne infections, lead poisoning, cancer, stroke, heart disease, and deadly infections contracted in hospitals,” said Tom Frieden, the CDC chief who recently left the post.
Here in Georgia, the demise of the fund could eliminate a wide swath of health programs and endanger a number of public health jobs. The loss rips a hole in the budgets of the state Department of Public Health, the DeKalb Board of Health, Georgia State University and Morehouse School of Medicine.
The state Department of Public Health receives $14.7 million a year from the prevention fund. The majority is used to support immunizations and the prevention of strokes, diabetes and tobacco use. The remainder is used to support staff and operating costs.
Some GOP lawmakers argue that the fund for pays for such projects as urban gardens and farmers markets, which they characterize as frivolous. They complain that while Congress allocates the money, it has scant oversight over the dollars.
Georgia Republican Rep. Barry Loudermilk took scornful aim at a program to create a mobile farmers market in DeKalb County.
“Is that the responsibility of taxpayers across the country to fund a farmers market in suburban Atlanta?” Loudermilk said.
He added, “When you get a large fund not allocated to a specific purpose, government tends to waste that money. We have to be more responsible than that.”
DeKalb health officials, for their part, say the the farmers market helps keep people healthy, which they say is the essence of public health. The market serves low-income areas where people don’t have ready access to fresh produce, they said.
“One of the objectives of the fund is improving nutrition, and what better way to do that than providing locally grown fruits and vegetables, ” said DeKalb Board of Health Director Elizabeth Ford.
Simply scrapping the Prevention and Public Health Fund is not the answer, said U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia.
If the fund is eliminated, Isakson said Congress should appropriate sufficient funding so the CDC can carry out its mission to protect Americans against the next public health threat.
He made clear that discussions on the bill are far from over.