A global pandemic might strike some as an odd time to cut public health budgets, but in a $250 million round of cuts, that’s what the state of Wyoming is doing.
The Casper Star-Tribune reported that the Wyoming Department of Health will bear roughly a third of those cuts, with $90 million being removed from its budget. Some of those cuts are inevitably trickling down to the Teton County Health Department, but Director of Health Jodie Pond said that’s just part of being an arm of the larger state organization.
“What it boils down to is that they have to take cuts,” she said. So her department does, too.
Gov. Mark Gordon announced the cuts months ago, saying they would be rolled out in two phases. The first is this round of 10% cuts to executive branch agencies, but those departments have also had to identify another 10% that could be cut.
In total, the state faces a $1.7 billion revenue shortfall, the result of the coronavirus pandemic and global upheaval in extractive industries. The state Constitution requires a balanced budget, so Gordon must find savings to make up for the decreased revenue.
Oil, coal and natural gas have long been the backbone of the state’s revenue. Without a state income tax and low business taxes overall, volatility in those industries can spell disaster for the state, especially since the pandemic also took a chunk out of the tourism industry, which drives many local economies across the state.
Going forward, Gordon said, that may have to change.
“The ability of those industries to continue to carry that load has been compromised; there’s just no question about that,” he said at his Aug. 26 press conference.
Having the state tax structure so heavily dependent on a few industries made it vulnerable, which Teton County School District No. 1 Trustee Annie Band called an “egregious dereliction of duty” on the part of the Legislature, which has the power to levy new taxes on other sectors but has declined to do so.
“Our Legislature has continued to kick the can down the road and refused to discuss alternative income streams,” she said.
The district is another local entity that looks to be affected by budget cuts as the pandemic endures. Wyoming faces a $500 million deficit in education revenue, but Gordon doesn’t have quite the same power to slash that budget.
The state’s general fund pays for most executive branch agencies, but education spending comes from a different account. A two-decade-old state Supreme Court ruling sets the rough level of funding the state must meet regardless of its financial situation, giving Gordon few options for cutting funding quickly.
He’s instead asking districts to implement voluntary 10% cuts. District communications director Charlotte Reynolds said she didn’t know whether the school board would comply with that request, since the power of the purse resides with it, not the administration.
The school board has a meeting Sept. 9, which would be its first opportunity to discuss potential cuts or plan for future changes in budgets. The economic outlook for the state is bleak, given that the pandemic looks as though it will persist until a vaccine or treatment is readily available, so trustees are already looking ahead to the 2021-22 school year.
Budget cuts for next year look like they could be as high as 20%, Band said, which she called “inconceivable.”
“At that point, there will be nothing but less-bad decisions that can be made,” she said.
The local Health Department, then, looks to bear the brunt of the immediate cuts. Programs that will be impacted include maternal and child health offerings and vaccine assistance for uninsured adults.
Pond wasn’t sure Monday exactly how far reaching the cuts would be. Along with public health response coordinator Rachael Wheeler and nurse manager Janet Garland, she said she hopes to line out exactly what the impact to each program will be this week.
The Health Department’s financial structure makes it difficult to easily ascertain the cuts’ impacts because it has so many funding sources. Programs are paid for through a mixture of federal, state and county sources, and some, like flu shots, make some revenue as well.
The cuts also affect providers and funding sources the department refers patients to, like a breast and cervical cancer program.
“A lot of patients in our family planning clinic take advantage of the breast and cervical cancer program, so that’s going to be a big impact,” Pond said.
The cuts may not be done, since state agencies may have another 10% reduction on the horizon, but even this first round could have deleterious effects on community health. The vaccine program, for instance, allows poor residents to keep themselves healthy.
Anything people can do to maintain their health bolsters them if they do contract the coronavirus. Losing these programs, Pond said, will make them more at risk in the long term.
“As a result, this will make people more and more susceptible to severe COVID outcomes,” she said. “So a lot of these safety net programs, even though they may not be quote, unquote COVID related, they reduce the health disparities that we already see as a country and definitely in our community.”