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Sequester cuts leave local health departments in limbo

The Ohio Department of Health Thursday told its partner agencies throughout the state to expect an average 8 percent cut in the federal grants for public health programs as a result of the federal government’s across-the-board spending cuts, known as sequestration.

While cuts to individual programs may vary widely, ODH officials offered the 8 percent estimate — based on government cuts elsewhere — as a guideline for state agencies since they have received little or no guidance from the government, said ODH Chief of Staff Tim Adams.

“Since early March, we have all been waiting…to learn exactly what the sequestration budget cuts and program impacts will be from each of our federal funders,” Adams told the leaders of several state agencies during a conference call. “To date, we have received final sequestration budget cut information on only a small fraction of the nearly 100 federal grants that are administered by our department.

“We at ODH, as I’m sure is the case for many of you, are becoming increasingly concerned with our ability to quickly shift our service delivery models within the ever-shrinking timelines that exist to implement these cuts,” Adams added.

Earlier this week, the ODH — which receives about 70 percent of its funding from the federal government to provide services to about 11.5 million Ohioans — sent a letter to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, requesting “an accelerated effort be made to provide Ohio-specific funding information.”

So far, the ODH has been able to mitigate the impact of known cuts resulting from sequestration.

Ohio’s WIC Food program, for example, was cut by $6,201,657 as a result of sequestration, but ODH was able to completely offset those cuts as a “result of efficiencies we have adopted over the past several years,” Adams said.

Sequestration has not become a major issue yet for most local health departments. But they’re still operating in limbo.

“Right now, we have not been impacted,” said Jim Gross, Montgomery County Health Commissioner. “If we do receive (cuts in funding) we will look at those on a case-by-case basis and act in the best interest of Montgomery County citizens.”

Local counties would be in much better position to reduce if not eliminate the negative impact of sequestration if they knew what to expect, said Duane Stansbury, Warren County Health Commissioner.

“I have a number of folks who work for me who are exclusively paid out of a grant,” he said. “So, if I don’t know what I’m going to be getting in the grant, I have no ability to plan what to do with this person.”

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