Budget cuts risk public health

We know it's taxes that everyone loves to hate. But Kentuckians will also pay a price for the austere budget enacted by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Steve Beshear earlier this year.

One example that came up in Lexington this week is the hit that public health has taken — $40 million in state budget cuts since 2008.

The loss of about $700,000 in state funding for the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department this year will probably force the layoffs of at least 25 of its 190 employees, director Dr. Rice Leach told the Board of Health this week.

Aside from the harm to a still-recovering economy from layoffs, cutting back on public health can be a very costly proposition — in both the short- and long-terms.

Public health workers are the first line of defense against infectious diseases, food-borne illnesses and unsanitary public nuisances — all of which can prove costly to both the general public and businesses.

Prevention is the key to some of Kentucky's most intractable and expensive health problems. The cost to taxpayers from teen pregnancy, smoking and HIV is likely to go up if spending on public health keeps going down.

We also depend on public health workers to protect us in emergencies — everything from earthquakes and tornadoes to anthrax attacks.

Public health, like almost every agency of state government, has undergone years of cuts as one budget after another has fallen short of meeting Kentucky's needs.

It's easy to quantify the cuts and the red ink.

It's harder to quantify the costs to the public when we scrimp on essential services, such as public health. But the costs are real and potentially huge.