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Guest column: SPLOST is vital for local public health
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Hall County will soon vote on SPLOST VI in a referendum that directly impacts an often unseen but vital component of community well-being: public health services.

Often you don't even see public health in action; it works beneath the radar, providing more than a dozen services ranging from maintaining vital records to immunizations, personal health services and crisis preparedness to restaurant, public swimming pools, tourist accommodations and septic system inspections.

However, as we live in one of the nation's fastest-growing areas, Hall County's demands for public health services have far outpaced our physical facilities, bringing a funding shortfall to the surface. To illustrate the point: In 2000, the Hall County Health Department provided 174,602 procedures to 3,183 patients, compared to 272,039 procedures to 6,822 patients in 2008. And that's just at the Athens Street campus alone.

Many clinical services, such as Women, Infant and Children and Women's Health and prenatal services are often so crowded that there's standing-room only in the waiting areas. Some patients and families have to resort to sitting on the floor.

Also, other areas of clinical focus, such as infectious diseases, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS treatment have inadequate space to function efficiently. Renovation and expansion of the vital records department are needed in order to improve the level of service able to be provided to the community. Because of inadequate space at the Health Department, a number of services for children with special needs have had to be located in rental space across town, resulting in less efficient and more costly management of those services.

We simply no longer have adequate space to meet the demand for services today, especially as many of those people newly unemployed, who have typically lost their health insurance, turn to the Health Department for assistance.

Recognizing that Hall County will probably continue to achieve significant growth over the coming years, the constraints that we are facing today will only be compounded. Even by conservative estimates, we project the health department's procedural rate to double from the 2008 total within the next 10 years.

Without funding from SPLOST VI to expand our capacity, our ability to meet the needs of the community will be significantly curtailed. Increased crowding, excessive delays for appointments and procedures, and gridlock in the parking lot are predictable consequences.

SPLOST VI has more than $5 million set aside to address these issues, allowing us primarily to expand the department's clinical and prevention education spaces, as well as to address parking issues.

Additionally, SPLOST VI addresses public health in another, longer-term way: A portion of funding promotes opportunities for individuals and families to increase their physical exercise, helping to address the statewide epidemics of obesity and diabetes. Many of those affected simply do not have a safe, accessible location or facility in which to exercise.

SPLOST VI will provide several countywide neighborhood areas and centers to promote a healthy alternative to our too-often sedentary lifestyles. It is far more cost-effective for public health and our community to invest in prevention than to have to treat the expensive complications of preventable diseases.

SPLOST VI addresses many of these immediate and long-term issues. It also helps reduce public health care demand in the future by supporting a focus on well being and prevention.

I encourage voters to consider the value of public health in Hall County and vote "yes" for SPLOST VI. From a health and safety standpoint, it's not an option we can afford to live without.

David Westfall, M.D., C.P.E., is the District 2 Public Health Director for 13 counties in Northeast Georgia, including Hall County.

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