Idaho’s public health districts are the first line of defense in health issues, according to South Central Public Health District Director Rene LeBlanc, but they are seeing a tightening bottom line in their budgets. “We recognize that we are not immune to the challenge facing state government,” LeBlanc said. “People are in need of assistance, and we’re doing what we can to facilitate that need.”
Idaho’s seven regional public health districts are set to see a $1.2 million drop in state funding in the next budget, resulting in $8.2 million in state funding. The total $50 million budget for all seven districts also includes program grants from the Department of Health and Welfare (DHW), fees from visitors for services, and funding from counties, which covers about $7 million a year. State funding is slated to see a 23 percent drop from the last budget to the budget proposed by Gov. Butch Otter. DHW’s budget reductions will also affect health districts. However, county funding has only dropped 2.2 percent. “This year, our goal is to ask our counties for level funding again,” LeBlanc said. “The counties’ desire to help public health districts is real, but the tax receipts are not.”
Public health districts are responding to shrinking budgets, LeBlanc said. “We have executed deep cutting efforts in order to become leaner,” he said. “We are slowly shrinking to match revenue.” Heath districts have decreased staffing by 15 percent during the past three years, eliminated some services, and tapped into reserve funds. He said those reserves are there in case of emergencies. “The very nature of outbreaks and pandemics require us to maintain adequate reserves,” LeBlanc said.
LeBlanc said many people won’t see service reductions at local public health offices until the next budget start in July, but districts took one cut last week. On Feb. 11, DHW canceled a $367,500 contract for IRIS, the state’s computerized childhood immunization registry, which allowed health districts to hire a nurse in the district to visit and assist private immunization providers maintaining the system. LeBlanc said cutting that contract means the only support for IRIS will come from DHW headquarters in Boise. He wouldn’t say if that would decrease the number of children on the IRIS registry, but said it would be reduce service and troubleshooting support for private providers, which provides 84 percent of childhood immunizations in the state. “We’re literally downsizing,” he said, “and when you downsize, you have to drop programs.”