Florida's pandemic response is beginning to unmask the deplorable lack of state health funding

Florida's pandemic response is beginning to unmask the deplorable lack of state health funding
Coronavirus image via CDC
As Florida battles the coronavirus pandemic, the effort has exposed an inconvenient truth that the state’s public health infrastructure has been whittled down by the Republican-led Legislature, especially in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

Despite what is expected to be a tough budget year, the Florida Department of Health is asking for money to begin rebuilding the infrastructure.

Health department officials in their 2021-2022 budget request made it clear to legislators: Florida has been stretched thin due to an ongoing series of public health outbreaks over the past few years that have included grappling with Zika and hepatitis A.

“Such threats are likely to continue and are of concern to Florida’s large population with underlying health conditions and older residents,” the legislative budget request said.

The agency's proposed spending plan also notes that “the national COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated an even greater need to build and sustain a professional epidemiological public health workforce, focused on infectious diseases and protection of our growing diverse population in Florida.”

To that end, the department asked to bolster its public health efforts by nearly $7 million in general revenue, with money going to adding 68 positions, including 14 new employees to help with the state lab in Jacksonville. DOH is also seeking help in other places: Surgeon General Scott Rivkees wants more than $8 million in general revenue to boost the efforts of the Office of Minority Health and Health Equity to work with public health departments to eliminate disparities in immunizations, cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS and infant mortality.

The agency has also asked for $1.4 million for “addressing the HIV epidemic,” including hiring advanced registered nurse practitioners and putting additional positions in counties with the highest HIV rates.

It will be interesting to see if Gov. Ron DeSantis — who has become the main public face of the state’s efforts to battle the coronavirus — will endorse the budget recommendations. (Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez works very closely with the health department, so one would assume she’s aware of what is in the department’s proposal.)

The department was required to submit its legislative budget request for the 2021-2022 fiscal year by Oct. 15. But the Legislature won't actually address the budget, which will take effect July 1, until it meets in the spring. By then, Florida, as well as the rest of the country, should know whether or not there was another coronavirus spike over the winter.

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