“Bottom line — the fiscal cliff presents a major threat to the Prevention Fund and also to public health. A solution could be worse for us than sequestration.”

Public Health Institute

On Wednesday, the Public Health Institute hosted "Where We Stand and What's Ahead: Public Health and the Prevention Fund," with panelists discussing the future of public health programs. Photo by Public Health Institute

That’s the directive from from Emily Holubowich, Executive Director of the Coalition for Health Funding, who described the all but certain future of public health as lawmakers on Capitol Hill battle out a deficit reduction deal to avoid the looming budget cuts. In a web forum Wednesday hosted by the Public Health Institute, Holubowich and several health experts outlined possible outcomes of the cuts — specifically to public health programs — and strategized on how to minimize the effects.

The crux of the issue is the sequester — a process defined by the Budget Control Act of 2011 to reduce federal spending — scheduled to take effect Jan. 2, 2013. While public health funding has already been cut by 5 percent since fiscal year 2010, the sequester would cut $2.5 billion more. Moreover, the planned deficit reduction strategy means that major public health programs could be on the chopping block.

“As a community we need to [ask] — if it means a balanced deal — is a 2 percent cut better than an 8 percent cut?” Holubowich said. “I know APHA and others have put out action alerts to get people engaged. We have to get people on The Hill, telling your story that this is what’s happening on the ground — “I’ve had to lay off this many people, I’ve had to deny this many people services.” — so when they vote, they connect the dots in their mind.”

Evidence of public health at work is the success of numerous Community Transformation Grants, or CTGs, programs expected to improve the health of more than that 40 percent of Americans. Wednesday’s discussion featured leaders from two CTGs:

  • In Broward County (Fla.), the Transforming Our Community’s Health (TOUCH) initiative targets prevention to promote four distinct causes: tobacco-free living, active living and health eating, high-quality clinical and preventive services, and healthy and safe physical environment; and
  • In Tuolumne County (Calif.), the Community Transformation Initiative is working towards county-wide smoke-free policies, limiting access to sugary beverages, reducing environmental risk factors and promoting safe routes to school and neighborhoods.

“Transformation is happening, but it is often hard to see in action,” said Todd Stolp, public health officer in Tuolomne on the call.

Added  Ann Whidden of the Public Health Institute: “One of things communities can focus on [to keep public health funding in place] is the need that’s there and think about showing the media what the barriers are — where people are living, walking down the trail in Todd’s community, what barriers to being physically active. It’s a great way of making something tangibly real for journalists.”