Public health leaders push back against Gavin Newsom’s budget cuts: ‘We cannot go back’

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Public health leaders raised alarm at proposed cuts to California’s state and local health departments Monday, calling the proposal from Gov. Gavin Newsom “devastating” and “a step backwards.”

Newsom on Friday unveiled his plan to fill a roughly $28 billion budget deficit, which includes more than $32 billion in cuts to one-time and ongoing spending over the next two years.

The budget proposal includes slashing $300 million in ongoing funding for state and local public health departments in the next budget year, as well as more than $52 million for the current year, under a program called the “Future of Public Health.”

“California cannot go back to neglecting public health,” said Michelle Gibbons, executive director of the County Health Executives Association of California.“We must continue to rebuild local public health department workforce and infrastructure so we can be prepared for the next crisis before it hits.”

Leaders of several county health departments said the $300 million was a hard-won commitment from the state meant to address systemic underfunding of public health in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. About two-thirds of the annual funding goes to counties and the rest to the California Department of Public Health

Since 2022, Gibbons said it has helped public health officials fight infectious diseases including tuberculosis, Valley fever, measles and various sexually transmitted diseases in their communities.

Without it, they worry state and local public health departments would be unable to quickly respond to future public health crises including H5N1, also called bird flu, which is circulating among livestock around the United States.

Gibbons said more than 900 positions in county health departments around the state have been filled through the Future of Public Health initiative.

Without the funding, hundreds of public health positions could be eliminated unless counties are able to find money elsewhere.

“There is not funding waiting in the wings,” said Dr. Aimee Sisson, health director of Yolo County. “If we lose this funding, people will lose their jobs and work will not get done.”

Yolo County received about $1.4 million this year from the Future of Public Health program, about 5% of the county’s overall public health budget, Sisson said.

She added that while funding for local health departments is often earmarked for specific purposes, the Future of Public Health program allowed counties to flexibly spend on the needs of their communities.

The funds have helped Yolo County administer wellness vending machines, which dispense free products like COVID-19 tests, contraception, mosquito repellent, fentanyl test strips and more. The county also hired a health coordinator to focus on farmworkers.

“These funds have begun to address decades of woeful underfunding of local health departments,” Sisson said. “We can’t go back.”

Asked about the cuts Friday, Newsom said “we wish this was a program we could continue to absorb and afford.”

The governor noted that his proposal is not set in stone and that lawmakers might reject his cuts. But Newsom has proposed slashing billions across programs, including social safety net and housing, in an effort to balance California’s budget for the next two years.

“We have a shortfall. We have to be sober about the reality of what our priorities are,” he said.