State health dept seeks money as reserve runs dry

February 9, 2012 1:04:00 PM

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The Mississippi Health Department told lawmakers Wednesday that it needs more money in the coming budget year or it may have to close clinics and reduce AIDS drug purchases. 

 

Dr. Mary Currier, the state health officer, told the House Appropriations Committee that the department has been draining internal reserves to stay afloat last year and this year. She said the Health Department is spending about $4 million from reserves this year and said accounts will be almost empty when the current budget year ends June 30. 

 

"For the past several years, we have spent down cash reserves to keep our doors open," Currier said. 

 

The department needs $32.5 million in state money, she said, well above the $26.5 million it's getting now. Legislative budgeters recommend $20.7 million for the coming year, while Gov. Phil Bryant recommended about $25 million. 

 

She said the $32.5 million would allow the department to maintain its current operations, as well as give it $2 million needed to meet increased matching requirements for federal AIDS funding.  

 

The department had requested $30.5 million at the beginning of the budget process, but had to raise its request when federal match requirements rose. Currier said the state needs $6 million more in AIDS money, and has found about $4 million in current spending that can be counted toward the increased match, leaving it $2 million short. 

 

Currier said that the department also expects a roughly 8 percent decrease in federal money next year, which will also affect operations. She also said county governments are cutting funding. She attributed the partial closure of a Health Department clinic in Ocean Springs to a $200,000 cut in money from Jackson County. 

 

Currier said that without the full $32 million, Mississippi would collect less federal AIDS money and "have to give up some things." 

 

"It would mean fewer services for folks," she said. "It would mean less medicine for AIDS patients." 

 

Rep. Sam Mims, R-McComb, asked if department could divert anti-tobacco money to other purposes. Currier said that money was earmarked by law and could not be shifted. 

 

Currier was not the first agency head to tell budget writers that she has been living on internal reserves that are now running out after years of budget cuts. Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds told the committee last week that college financial aid programs are in much the same shape. 

 

"When you put non-recurring cash into recurring expenses, you get into the problem we're in right now," House Appropriations Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, said after the meeting. 

 

He said he didn't have any specific solution for the Health Department's cash crunch. But Frierson said he hoped to decrease the state's reliance on one-time money gradually over the next three years as the economy improves.