Commissioner Greg Epstein thinks the Teton County Health Department might be the most important wing of county government right now.
In a time when money is tight and revenue down, Teton County Director of Health Jodie Pond hopes that’s enough to save the department from budget cuts. She met with the Teton County Board of County Commissioners April 28 as part of preliminary budget talks for fiscal year 2021.
“We do need to build two parallel systems,” she said, “where we’re continuing to do the most urgent things and the grant-funded things we are contractually obligated to do, then also contact tracing and this technical assistance for businesses, and a million other little things that come up around COVID.”
Every county department has been asked to cut its budget by 20% for fiscal year 2021 in anticipation of a severe drop in revenue due to decreased tourism. The Health Department was funded for $1.6 million by the county last year, though it also receives grants for some programs. Pond said cutting $323,000 would mean losing essential services.
Pond told commissioners that her department needed to continue some of its efforts like flu vaccinations, family planning services and restaurant inspections because not doing them could simply add a new problem to the mix.
“If we have a food-borne illness outbreak during a pandemic that could overwhelm the hospital, too,” she said.
Commissioners were wary of cutting the Health Department’s budget during a public health crisis. Mark Newcomb said much of the economic recovery hinges on contact tracing, and Epstein referred to Pond’s department as “the No. 1 in the county.”
They also, however, were leery about the expected cash shortfalls and inquired about potential revenue sources from federal relief money. Pond told them that her department had received a $100,000 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant but little else.
At least one potential external source of revenue was an increase to a different CDC grant program the Health Department already participates in. None of the $80,000 that was expected to trickle down from the Wyoming Department of Health has made it to the county department.
Newcomb said the board should use its position to lobby the state and the Wyoming County Commissioners Association.
“I think we need to start shaking the tree,” he said.
Some Health Department programs may be able to pick up some slack. Flu vaccinations run through the nursing department, which will be important in keeping the population healthy this fall before a COVID-19 vaccine is created, are one. The department bills Medicaid and private health insurance companies for the vaccines, and Pond said the program could bring in roughly $37,000 in revenue if it received full funding to purchase supplies.
The environmental health department, which administers water testing and many other services, brings in $133,000 in net income from testing fees and other sources. With just a $46,000 price tag, Pond pointed to it as important for the department to be as financially viable as possible.
Being just a budget meeting, commissioners made no plans or promises, but Chairwoman Natalia D. Macker said she was sure they would return to some of the topics as budget talks progress. Pond, for her part, did all she could to impart the need to maintain public health funding during a global pandemic.
“When there’s been budget cuts to public health for so many years, we really do live in a very lean budget year to year,” she said. “If we are asked to cut, it makes it even more difficult.”