Public health programs keep Montana communities healthy and safe.

The services these programs provide are vast. They include newborn health screenings, cancer screenings, HIV screenings, programs to reduce tobacco use and increase healthful eating and exercise. They help ensure that food is safe to eat and that our communities can respond to disease outbreaks and disasters.

In Gallatin County, we depend on these federal resources to help respond to communicable disease outbreaks such as the pertussis outbreak at Bozeman High School last year. These resources allow the Gallatin City-County Health Department to provide screening for more than 500 uninsured people each year. The funding helps pay for affordable immunizations, smoking cessation programs, and home visits by public health nurses to help new mothers raise healthy babies. All of these services are critical in Gallatin County, where 22 to 25 percent of adults do not have health insurance.

These programs save both lives and money by preventing disease or catching it early. They help to reduce chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes, which are the primary driver of our nation’s out-of-control health care spending.

Every city, town and county in Montana benefits from these services. But despite this success story, the federal funds on which these programs depend face severe cuts.

The U.S. House of Representatives is considering the fiscal year 2013 spending bill for health programs, which contains significant cuts to public health funding, rescinds the Prevention and Public Health Fund, blocks funding for implementing much of the Affordable Care Act and includes a number of troubling anti-public health legislative riders which will harm the health of Montanans and increase the cost of health care.

In addition to proposed cuts in the annual spending bill, public health programs face across-the-board cuts of roughly 8 percent if “sequestration” is allowed to take effect in January 2013. Sequestration is the result of Congress’ failure last year to pass a balanced deficit reduction plan. As a result, automatic cuts to federal programs may take place.

In Montana, the arbitrary budget cuts required by sequestration would result in 13,500 fewer women, children and families served through Maternal and Child Health programs, 655 fewer children receiving immunizations, 671 fewer women being screened for cancer, nearly 2,000 fewer people being screened for HIV, and many other harmful cuts, including reduced ability to respond to disease outbreaks and disasters.

It is critical that Congress pass a balanced plan that does not make additional cuts to non-defense discretionary programs, which include public health, education, law enforcement and transportation.

The nation needs an unwavering investment in public health funding that will support life-saving programs and services that have long been underfunded in Montana. Rebuilding public health infrastructure means improving community-based health and strengthening the capacity within public health departments. With a substantial increase in public health funding, we can strive to be the healthiest nation in one generation.

It’s time to act on what we know is the right thing to do. For Montana’s leaders in Congress, the message is clear: The long-term health consequences, including costs, will far outweigh the short-term savings. Research shows how vital this is: For every $1 invested in proven community-based public health programs, $5.60 is saved, according to Trust for America’s Health.

Please urge Montana’s leaders in Congress to support prevention and public health services that benefit our local communities.

Matt Kelley is a public health officer with the Gallatin City-County Health Department.

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