The Department of Health has finalized details of a reorganization that will reduce the number of public health districts by two-thirds in the agency’s ongoing effort to close a $6.5 million budget gap.
The department currently operates nine public health districts, each with its own main office. Under the reorganization, offices in Batesville, Starkville, Meridian, McComb and Hattiesburg will close by July 1, State Health Officer Dr. Mary Currier told Mississippi Today. This leaves just three regional health offices in Tupelo, Jackson and Biloxi. A fourth public health office will remain in Greenwood, but it will not be tied to a specific region.
Currier said the reorganization plans will slash more than $2 million in administrative costs but should not affect services.
“By closing two-thirds of our district offices, we’re immediately saving $1.5 million in administrative overhead,” Currier said. “We have reduced district level leadership and our overall agency workforce through retirements, resignations and reassignments.”
As part of the reorganization, the Department of Health also will cut staff within the public health regions. Previously, each district had one chief nurse, for a total of nine statewide. Now each district will share two chief nurses, for a total of six.
The total number of district health officers will go from six to three, with a fourth physician specializing in epidemiology based at the central office in Jackson. Currier said these administrative reductions saved the department more than half a million dollars in state funds.
Traditionally, the regional health offices have handled administrative duties while the county health clinics provided services, a hierarchy that Currier said will remain intact after the reorganization.
But the supervision of many county-level programs – immunizations, tuberculosis control, epidemiology, disease intervention and emergency preparedness – will be centralized to relieve some of the burden in the field, according to a press release from the Department of Health.
Currier also said the Department of Health has managed to shift some federal funding to clinic and district operations, a move that has helped the department avert layoffs within both county clinics and district offices.
“We’ve had so many retirements and resignations that it became unnecessary,” Currier said. “Even with all the movement and moving out of offices, we’re trying to disrupt our services as little as possible. But movement like that has an effect.”
Still, Currier acknowledges that even after the dramatic changes announced Monday, the department still needs to find several million dollars in other savings. She said one way the agency has tried to accomplish this is by asking each of its offices for a shoestring budget, essentially a version where their funding is cut in half.
“And then we meet with them and ask them what they can do to go through it without affecting their core services,” Currier said. “And they’re doing more with less. There are lots of things within these offices that cut down on expenses and really it’s having fewer people doing the same amount of work.”
One area where that has happened has been cleaning. After a series of budget cuts reduced the state appropriation for the Department of Health from $36 million to $31 million in fiscal year 2017, the agency ended its contract with a cleaning company and began relying on female inmates to clean bathrooms and stairwells. But any vacuuming is up to the Department of Health employees.
“They do a great job, all for the price of providing them with lunch, so it’s a great deal for us,” Currier said. “But they don’t do a lot of vacuuming. So we do that. But we’ve done that for a while.”