Shay Totten On VDH Funding & The Cuts Impact To State’s Swine Flu Efforts

"Meanwhile, regional visiting nurse associations will be paid a total of $2 million to staff flu clinics for the general public."

Related: VTDigger Piece On VDH’s Coming School Flu Shot Storm   

Cover that Cough
The flu season is upon us, and it is underscoring the impact of nearly two years of state staffing cuts.

In 2007, the state had 87 public health nurse positions, according to state personnel records. Today, that number has dwindled to 65. Every one of the state’s 12 district health offices has been impacted by the job cuts.

The cuts have meant that flu clinics, once largely run by the state’s public health nurses, have been handed over to the private sector.

A national nursing firm, Healthy Achievers, will provide flu shots to state workers. They had a $92,000 contract last year to staff the clinics, while this year they will be paid a maximum of $77,910. Next year, the state has agreed to pay out as much as $103,000.

Meanwhile, regional visiting nurse associations will be paid a total of $2 million to staff flu clinics for the general public.

State nurses are working with local school districts to staff in-school flu shot clinics.

What puzzles some observers is that the health department relies more heavily on federal and special funds than do most other state departments and yet has seen its nursing ranks shrink.

In fact, only 9 percent of the department’s money comes from the state general fund, said Chris Finley, deputy health commissioner. The feds finance about 80 percent of the department’s work.

“That said, we’ve been faced with the same constraints as other departments, and I know we always say this, but we really are doing everything we can to make sure that we don’t impact public health,” said Finley.

Finley said public health nurses provide a wide range of services, from maternal-child services to screening families for the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.

One way the department is seeking help is through volunteers. Earlier this fall it sent a letter to private nurses asking them to help out at flu clinics.

Dawn Kersula, a registered nurse at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, was shocked to receive a letter from the state asking her to volunteer her time.

Rather than getting nurses to work for free, she suggests a better public health policy is to keep good nurses on staff.

“We were aghast to receive letters asking us to volunteer to give flu shots, for the good of the populace, the day after the announcement of more layoffs. This is not forward-thinking public health policy,” said Kersula.

Speaking of forward thinking, more cuts are on the horizon. Department heads have been given a reduction target of 8 percent for the FY 2011 budget.

As if swine flu weren’t enough to make a state employee feel queasy.

Despite the cuts, the state has found money to install new granite steps at the health department’s Burlington office on Cherry Street.

Total cost? Roughly $100,000, said State Building Commissioner Gerry Myers.

The granite was locally sourced, which made the project more expensive, he said. They also used a Vermont-based contractor.

The repairs were several years in the making, as the original steps were falling apart and increasingly unsafe, especially in the winter.

Wouldn’t want a laid-off employee to trip on their way out the door, adding injury to insult.