Health department levy failure to affect services

Anna Duszkiewicz

Issue 5 was on the ballot Tuesday as the Portage County Health Department’s 33rd attempt to pass an additional levy, and it failed 37 percent to 63 percent.

The repeated failure of the levy affects seasonal flu vaccine supplies, said DuWayne Porter, Portage County Health Commissioner.

“We could only afford to buy a very limited amount of the seasonal flu vaccine with the money that we have, and we actually stretched out budget to buy those,” Porter said.

This year the state health department gave the Portage County Health Department a limited number of free seasonal flu vaccines to be administered to specific populations, such as people with low incomes. In order to have vaccines for everyone else, the county health department had to buy them from the state.

He said the vaccines are in high demand and go very quickly.

“Do we have enough seasonal flu for everyone? No, we don’t,” Porter said. “We have a very high demand for it, but because of our budget situation, we can’t do that. It will be even less next year.”

The federal government has given the department grants to support the H1N1 vaccination efforts. Although the failure of Issue 5 does not affect the vaccination effort, the combination of the H1N1 project, and the levy failure is putting a strain on the county health department.

In the past two months, the department has had to cut services to direct its efforts toward vaccinating against the H1N1 virus, mainly because of the decrease in staffing. The department had 65 staff members in 1981 and is now down to 22.

“We have to dedicate everyone we possibly can to the H1N1 project,” Porter said. “If we had money and proper staffing, we’d be able to continue services like most health departments around us. They are influenced by H1N1, but it’s not affecting them to the point where they have to shut down other services.”

A levy failing 33 times may indicate voters do not feel an issue is important or affects their lives directly. That’s one of the problems with health departments, said DuWayne Porter,

He said the health department is looked at as an enforcement agency for health code violations, but it does much more to protect people.

“Our whole goal is prevention, so if we’re doing our job, you may never see the effects of what we’ve done for you,” Porter said. “You know, you may not have severe medical problems because you got screened; you may not get salmonella from a restaurant because the health department came in and cleaned it up. Our job is behind the scenes to stop things from happening.”

Porter said he is disappointed with yet another failure.

“I wasn’t that confident that it would pass this time, but I was flabbergasted, to put it mildly, of the degree in which we lost, with 63 to 37 percent,” he said. “I’m not sure what’s going on. This health department has made a major effort to ensure the public is safe from H1N1 and keeping our water and waste water under control. We’re checking restaurants, we’re checking grocery stores. We’re doing all the things that I guess people don’t feel they need.”

Issue 5 was not on the Kent ballot, but Kent resident Andrea Evans said she would have voted for it if it had been. Still, she said she can see why people voted against it.

“When you think health department, you’re not thinking stuff like vaccines and helping people and kids,” she said. “And when people see levy, they think taxes. I think people are just taxed out.”

Porter said the levy will be on the ballot again.

“It will be on again in May, it will be on in November,” he said. “We have to have it on until it passes. We cannot exist with our current budget.”

The department is caught in a vicious cycle, because with increasingly limited funds, Porter said it does not have money to campaign.

If the levy never passes, the health department may eventually cease to exist, Porter said.

“Eventually our services will be cut, the state health department will assign a neighboring county health department to assume some of our services, and our health department will begin to no longer exist,” Porter said. “At this point, we’re just looking for survival.”

Contact public affairs reporter Anna Duszkiewicz at [email protected].