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GUEST EDITORIAL: Rebuild the state’s public health system

Staff Writer
The News Herald
The News Herald

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The fact that public health in this state is a shambles is a shameful example of anti-government ideology taking precedence over the health of the people.

This is not the only example, however. Stubborn resistance to accepting federal money to expand Medicaid left too many Florida adults without health insurance, as well as leaving Florida’s mental health care funded at some of the lowest levels in the nation.

That’s what happens when people consider government to be evil.

In fact, the battle between government and private industry is a false choice. There are times when smart elected officials set up a competition between government and private industry to determine who can best serve the people.

There are other times when government is simply the best choice. Public health is an excellent example. People in public health can convene government, nonprofits and private health executives in collaborations that benefit the entire community.

An excellent example in Jacksonville involves a system of care in which pediatricians have been trained to provide mental health services and consult with the few child psychiatrists in the city.

That was a brainchild of Jeff Goldhagen, the pediatrician who won a federal grant to set up the system. But Goldhagen would be far more effective if he still were director of the Duval County Health Department. Goldhagen was forced out in 2005 after serving effectively since 1993.

In an opinion column, Goldhagen described the “dismantling” of public health in the state.

In 1997, Florida’s public health system was recognized as one of the best in the nation. Goldhagen’s staff members were conducting high-level research studies of public health issues.

In Duval County, especially, the state’s health director here was treated like a staff member of the mayor’s office. When the state took over public health, that direct local connection was reduced.

As validation of the sad state of public health in Florida, the state has been forced to hire about 100 students and professors to assist its overloaded public health experts, reported The Tampa Bay Times.

The Florida Times-Union documented that Florida has fewer epidemiologists per resident than most states. Texas has double the Florida rate. So it’s no surprise that Florida pays its epidemiologists at the lowest rate in the nation.

Most of the cutting of public health occurred under Gov. Rick Scott, but Gov. Ron DeSantis cut nearly 600 public health jobs in his first state budget.

Scott and the Legislature dropped grants to develop vaccines and testing tools even before the grants ended. Why? In an answer to the Tampa Bay Times, Scott’s office responded to criticism as love of “bigger government and more bureaucracy.”

Yet there is no good private replacement for public health. Florida needs to immediately rebuild its public health system.

This guest editorial was originally published by the The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.