The heads of two Georgia health departments presented two very different pictures of what budget cuts could mean for their agencies to state lawmakers on Thursday.
One called the spending reductions “painful.” Another stressed the impact on services would be “minimal.”
Their remarks came during the final hours of a three-day marathon of hearings where agency heads presented their spending plans to state lawmakers. Many of their budgets were considerably smaller this time around, thanks to cuts requested by Gov. Brian Kemp.
The Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) serves people with mental illness, substance abuse disorder, and those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It’s reduced spending by more than $80 million in the current and next fiscal years.
Judy Fitzgerald, who leads the agency, was frank about the effects the cuts could have.
“Because of the unique characteristics of DBHDD–our dependence on state funds, the wide swath of people that we serve–it was not possible for us to take the cuts without a reduction of services to individuals in the state,” she said.
Fitzgerald said her goal is to minimize impacts on the more than 200,000 Georgians her agency currently serves. Still, she stressed, “the safety net is stretched to the max”–as the state’s population grows, so does the need for mental health and substance abuse services.
The message struck a nerve with Rep. Darlene Taylor, who represents a rural south Georgia district.
“A spoonful of sugar is not going to make this go down,” she said. “We have so many needs that are unmet now, particularly in rural communities. We need to go back and look at this, because this is just not going to work.”
Meanwhile, the head of Georgia’s Department of Public Health (DPH) painted a more optimistic picture of what reduced spending would mean for her agency, which provides services such as immunization, nutrition counseling, and family planning.
More than $23 million will be cut from the department’s budget in the current and next fiscal years. Close to $15 million of that will be reductions in funding to local health departments, which operate in all 159 Georgia counties.
“We may have to change exactly the services are delivered, perhaps the hours in which the services are being delivered,” said DPH Commissioner Kathleen Toomey. “Bottom line is we really are working hard to make sure that services are not reduced.”
Toomey said regional public health districts and the county offices they manage have more “flexibility” to raise revenue for their operations than the state does, say by utilizing fees for services like restaurant inspections.
Still, the cuts were concerning to some lawmakers, such as Rep. Clay Pirkle, who represents a rural south Georgia district.
He pointed out that county public health departments are often on the “frontline” of healthcare in rural Georgia, especially in areas where medical providers are scarce.
“Additional monies for our public health departments will be difficult on the ground level in some of our counties,” he said. “Some of these counties have a difficult time keeping their lights on.”