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Louisville's Health Department Faces Cuts Amid City Budget Crisis

city Hall
city Hall

On Thursday, Mayor Greg Fischer released a budget proposal that could cut $25 million worth of city spending in the next fiscal year. That includes a sizable chunk from the Louisville Metro Department of Health and Wellness, including shrinking the staff  and eliminating both an employee wellness program and a program that helps people with mental illness.

Fischer’s proposal, which also includes significant cuts to the city’s public safety and libraries, includes a $647,000 decrease in health department funding for staff.

Matt Rhodes, director of operations at the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness, said that would mean laying off a lab technician in the city’s STD clinic, in addition to eliminating a seasonal lab technician who works on mosquito control. Seven open positions will go unfilled, including a health program analyst in the Center for Health Equity and a HIV prevention health educator.

“Losing a lab technologist from the STD clinic will impact our clinical efficiency in returning diagnosis, which will require operational adjustments and a different service model for scheduling appointments,” Rhodes said. “And reducing our staff will hinder our ability to respond to emergencies such as the hepatitis A outbreak.”

Another position that will go unfilled is a food safety inspector, who conducts hundreds of food inspections to make sure food in restaurants, from street vendors and concession stands is safe to eat.

Rhodes said the loss of this inspector, also called an “environmental health inspector,” will mean the city will increase the time between inspections.

“For our environmental health inspector, they average about 1,000 services a year, which will slow our pace to get to the inspections,” Rhodes said. “Many take food safety for granted, while the Health Department works daily to ensure the safeguards enjoyed by everyone.”

Rhodes said the department may be able to retain some of these positions with possible money from the state and grants. And it could have been worse: the original prospective budget cuts that Mayor Fischer released in February eliminated the STD clinic altogether, and vastly decreased syringe exchange locations. Rhodes said instead, the city looked to eliminate positions that don’t have direct contact with the public.

“The primary concern that we had was that if we eliminate personal, the ones that are delivering the service, it’ll impact our ability to reach our community,” Rhodes said.

But he said that the cuts to employees who work behind the scenes will still have an impact.

“I do think there will be some unintended consequences and we don’t know what those will be,” Rhodes said.

The proposed cuts would also eliminate an employee wellness program that the health department recently started as a pilot. An outside firm was hired to do an evaluation of the needs of employees, and then developed customized trainings. Those include trainings on well-being, work-life balance, inclusivity and conflict management.

Also included in the cuts is city funding for Living Room Project, which is a brick and mortar location where someone experiencing an addiction or mental health crisis can get on-the-spot help. The goal is to divert people in crisis from jail, the emergency room or inpatient hospitalization. It’s run by Centerstone, a nonprofit health organization with clinics and centers in Louisville.

In March, Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together (CLOUT) asked Metro Council members to keep funding for the program. Chris Finzer, chair of CLOUT’s Mental Illness and Addiction Issue Committee, said at the time that losing it would be a tragedy for the city.

“The Living Room has been highly successful in providing help to an extremely disadvantaged, vulnerable population — a population which defies easy or quick solutions,” Finzer said at the meeting.

Rhodes said the Living Room Project at some point was expected to get less government funding and rely more on other funding sources, though not fully. That still hasn’t happened, and the program currently relies entirely on city support.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.

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