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Billings Clinic's Joe Joey Traywick, Jason Banfield and Rebecca Bowers

Billings Clinic staff members Joey Traywick, Jason Banfield and Rebecca Bowers suit up in protective gear for an emergency response drill last month.

Prevention is a tough sell in hard times.

The logic of investing in public policies that will save money in the future — on health care or disaster response — is again getting lost in the battle to cut government spending.

As previously reported by The Gazette:

  • Over the past year, the federal government has reduced its funding of emergency preparedness grants for Montana hospitals.
  • Montana cut public health funding 7.5 percent over the past year.
  • Billings is among 51 cities nationwide in the federal Cities Readiness Initiative at risk for being eliminated from the program that would help with fast distribution of vaccines and medicine in an emergency.
  • Montana is one of 24 states at risk for losing the services of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiology officers who assist local and state officials in the event of a communicable disease outbreak.
  • Federal funding for research and training for emergency preparedness is at risk of being zeroed out.

In the wake of 9/11 and the subsequent anthrax attacks, Congress and President George W. Bush put more resources into “all hazards preparedness.” Efforts over the past decade have upgraded and mobilized emergency planning, coordination and response nationwide, including in Billings.

However, the focus for 2012 is cutting the deficit, spending less and shrinking government.

“Preparedness had been on an upper trajectory, but now some of the most elementary capabilities — including the ability to identify and contain outbreaks — provide vaccines and medications during emergencies, and treat people during mass traumas — are experiencing cuts in every state,” said Jeff Levi of Trust for America’s Health, an organization that released a report last month on preparedness gaps.

The National Association of City and County Health Officials has documented the loss of more than 34,000 local health department workers due to layoffs and attrition since 2008.

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According to a NACCHO survey conducted this past summer, cuts in public health programs affected departments serving 68 percent of the U.S. population. More than half of Montana local health departments surveyed cut programs between June 2010 and June 2011 because of budgetary reasons.

RiverStone Health, which is the Yellowstone city-county health department, has seen its budget tighten and it has used Cities Readiness funds to prepare for disasters, CEO John Felton recently told a Gazette reporter.

That planning helped in the response to the H1N1 flu, to last spring’s flooding and to the Yellowstone River oil spill.

Public health delivers more bang for the buck than any other health care sector. By keeping whole communities safer and healthier, every other demand for care is lessened; and fewer treatment dollars are wasted on problems that could have been prevented.

Taxpayers and lawmakers should demand accountability for emergency preparedness dollars. But they should stop attempts to rip away emergency support. Such cuts would guarantee that the next major disaster would be harder to manage. This public safety net must be preserved, not eliminated or subject to arbitrary across-the-board cuts.

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