Flu Funds Boost Local Health Budgets The federal government has allocated more than $1 billion to help cash-strapped local health departments hire staff to distribute the H1N1 vaccine. The money has allowed some departments to rehire staff they had recently let go.
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Flu Funds Boost Local Health Budgets

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Flu Funds Boost Local Health Budgets

Flu Funds Boost Local Health Budgets

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The swine flu has been a stimulus of sorts for all the health departments around the country that have been short of cash. The federal government has allocated more than a billion dollars to help them ramp up their public response. From California member station Capital Public Radio, Kelley Weiss reports.

KELLEY WEISS: At Sacramento Countys public health department, they're doing something they haven't been able to do for a while: hiring people.

Ms. LYNNAN SVENSSON (Immunization Program Coordinator, Sacramento County): Its a temporary stimulus, but it is a stimulus at a time in which we really needed one.

WEISS: Lynnan Svensson is Sacramento County's immunization program coordinator. She says her health department will get about three-and-a-half million dollars in federal funds to hire a slew of new employees.

(Soundbite of phone dial tones, ringing)

WEISS: Shes been spending a lot of time on the phone figuring out how shell use these new employees at the H1N1 vaccine clinics that start next week.

Ms. SVENSSON: So thats the plan.

Unidentified Woman: OK.

Ms. SVENSSON: Per clinic, we need about 30 nurses and about 30 non-medical individuals.

WEISS: This infusion of federal cash comes at a good time for county health departments around the country. A recent National Association of County and City Health Officials survey found that in a little over a year, local health departments have lost, on average, 10 percent of their workforce. Svensson says Sacramento County Public Health has seen its fair share of staff cuts, so she says the federal money will give her staff a huge boost. Shes getting at least 80 new employees. Thats compared to her normal team of eight part-time employees.

Ms. SVENSSON: We're bringing on some registered nurses, some licensed vocational nurses, as well as office assistants.

WEISS: Without them, she says itd be almost impossible to give out about 2,000 shots at each clinic. And she'll be able to hire back some nurses who were recently let go. Jan Heckey is one of those nurses. She says even though this is a temporary position and a little bittersweet, the paycheck will help her family's budget, especially in the upcoming holiday season.

Ms. JAN HECKEY (Nurse): We have been affected by my not being working. We have definitely had to scale back on expenses and put things on hold.

WEISS: Public health departments around the nation will also be using the federal funds to hire on new temporary staff like Heckey. Jeff Levi is with the public health advocacy group Trust for America's Health. He says during this pandemic, these staff hires are vital.

Mr. JEFF LEVI: Over the last year and a half, it's been estimated that local health departments have lost somewhere around 20,000 positions.

WEISS: Congress approved more than seven-and-a-half billion dollars in emergency funds specifically for the swine flu. More than half of that money went to pay for H1N1 vaccine production. Local health departments will get almost one-and-a-half billion dollars to give out the vaccines. The bigger the county's population, the more funding they get.

Levi says while this money is critical, it's still just a short-term boost.

Mr. LEVI: Those positions that have been at least temporarily saved or restored at the local level because of the pandemic money, those will disappear again once the pandemic is over.

WEISS: But he says there's a bright spot for the future. In the recently passed House of Representatives health care overhaul bill, there's a multibillion-dollar trust fund that includes money for local health departments. But that dedicated revenue stream is not a done deal, because the Senate hasnt weighed in with its version of a health care bill.

For NPR News, Im Kelley Weiss in Sacramento.

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