News Alert: New analysis reveals local health department job losses

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By The Staff

Nearly half of local health departments lost skilled workers in the second half of 2009 – threatening essential services.

A just-completed analysis of a new survey on local health department job losses illustrates the uphill battle that local health departments continue to fight as they struggle to keep Americans safe and provide basic disease prevention and emergency preparedness services in the face of budget cuts.

The full report, which expands on preliminary survey results released by the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) in March, found that from January 2008 to December 2009, local health departments lost 23,000 jobs to layoffs and attrition, roughly 15 percent of the entire local health department workforce. 

In the last six months of 2009, nearly half of local health departments (46 percent) lost the skilled people needed to protect the health of people in their communities, according to the NACCHO survey.

When put in context of population, these job losses appear even more severe: Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of the U.S. population lives in jurisdictions of local health departments that lost staff between June and December 2009. Nationwide, the median number of local health department employees is only 18, illustrating the significance of even one lost job. 

Unfortunately, these job losses are both crippling the ability of local health departments to respond to emergencies and emerging threats and diminishing their capacity to conduct day-to-day operations of inspection and public service on which the health of Americans relies. 

Sixty-three percent of the U.S. population lives in the jurisdiction of a local health department that made cuts to at least one service to the public in 2009, such as an activity aimed at improving childhood nutrition, preventing tobacco use, or providing childhood immunizations. And despite these constraints, for the better part of last year, these strapped local health departments managed to continue to make sure the school cafeteria and restaurant food was safe and provide preventive services to reduce the toll of diseases such as diabetes and HIV/AIDS, in addition to responding to H1N1 influenza.

“Continued cuts to local health department budgets threaten Americans’ safety and health,” NACCHO Executive Director Robert Pestronk said. “Although local health departments will continue to do the best job they can with the resources available to them, the cumulative effects of these budget cuts and job losses have taken a major toll on the ability of health officials to respond not only to large-scale emergencies and disease outbreaks like H1N1 influenza, but to the everyday situations for which the health department is the first line of defense.”