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Injection of funds
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The Newton County Public Health Department, which has seen its state funding drastically decreased in recent years, is expected to get a much-needed injection of funds later this summer as a result of a $5.7 million allocation to the state Division of Public Health which was included in the 2008 fiscal year state budget.

Vernon Goins, public information officer for the East Metro Health District - which consists of Newton, Rockdale and Gwinnett counties - said he does not yet know specifically how much money from the $5.7 million will be allocated to the Newton County Public Health Department.

"We don't know yet how much is coming to East Metro," Goins said. "It's usually distributed after the first of July so we expect it very soon."

However Goins is optimistic that the funding will allow the county to revive some programs which had either been cut altogether - such as the department's Men's Health and Diabetes Programs - or were in danger of also being terminated such as the department's popular Stroke and Heart Attack Prevention Program.

Over the past 10 years the county's public health department has seen its funding cut as part of a larger statewide trend towards funding private health care instead for the care of indigents.

"The biggest hit this year was because of the Medicaid managed care," said Goins. "The state took that away from public health and made it private. That's about a $300,000 hit."

Additionally an outdated 35-year-old formula for the allocation of state funds to counties has resulted in Newton County receiving only $3.69 per person in general Grant-in-Aid allocations for FY 2007 according to a 2007 report on the county's health department. The state average in GIA public health funding per person last year was $6.89.

 The outdated formula used by the legislature did not take into account recent increases in populations which resulted in Taliaferro County, with a 2005 population of 1,826, receiving an allocation in FY 2007 of $41.32 per county resident, compared to the much more populous Gwinnett County which only received $2.35 per resident for the care of its 726,273 inhabitants.

Of the state's 159 counties, Newton is ranked 152 in terms of GIA funding, slightly above Gwinnett County - ranked 158 - and slightly below Rockdale County which was ranked 146 and saw a GIA allocation of $4.22 per county resident.

"The East Metro Health District together has the absolute lowest per capita allocation from the state," Goins said. "By a terrible coincidence we are also the most populated."

With Newton County's continued high rate of population growth, had the existing formula continued Goins says the consequences for the county's health department would have been disastrous and in the event of a bioterrorism attack or a large-scale outbreak of an infectious disease the consequences for the county would likely have been fatal.

However, the Georgia legislature is acting to change the formula for allocations to take into account state populations and is also asking for an additional $5.7 million in next year's budget to bring such under-funded counties as Newton and Rockdale up to the state's average. By 2009 Goins said the legislature hopes to have equal funding levels for all Georgia counties.

"We're still in crisis but at least now the crisis will be handled by the state," said Goins. "It'll take us some time to adjust, but hopefully we can start bringing back some of those much needed services."

Goins said the work done by Rep. Donna Sheldon (R-Dacula) was instrumental in bringing the issue to the attention of the General Assembly.

"She beat the drums because you have to show people," said Goins. "She has been a tireless champion for this case and now we're going to see benefits."

Additionally, Goins said Newton County's own representatives to the legislature worked hard to get the $5.7 million allocation included in the FY 2008 budget.

"This to me is something that's a no-brainer," said Rep. Doug Holt (R-Covington). "We need to get our fair share especially when we're looking at the possibility of a pandemic over the next five to 10 years."

A house study committee has been formed to study the state's health system with the purpose of making recommendations to the legislature next year on how the system can be strengthened.

The Newton County Public Health Department employs approximately 40 licensed practical nurses, registered nurses, nurse practitioners, epidemiologists, nutritionists, health planners, health educators, dentists, physicians and support staff who provide such services as lab tests, immunizations, STD and HIV/AIDS prevention, testing and treatment programs, school screenings and Women, Infants and Children services.