On Tuesday, July 15, the Coalition for Health Funding hosted its annual Public Health 101 congressional briefing. During this year's briefing, "Faces of Austerity: How Budget Cuts Hurt America's Health," longtime AcademyHealth member Glen P. Mays, F. Douglas Scutchfield Endowed Professor in Health at the University of Kentucky, spoke on the economic impact of cuts to public health funding.

The new work presented by Dr. Mays complemented his 2011 study, published in Health Affairs, which demonstrated that investments in local public health departments improved rates of preventable causes of death, including infant mortality, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes. That study, too, saw public health having a greater impact in low-resource communities.

As Dr. Mays noted during the briefing, historically, the U.S. public health system is a great success story. However, public health receives only 3 percent of the $2.3 trillion spent on health care. He cautioned that recent cuts to the chronically underfunded system could prevent public health from doing its traditionally “invisible” work to increase life expectancy, prevent disease and death, and contribute to healthier communities.

Among the statistics provided during his presentation, Dr. Mays noted that, between 2006 and 2012, the average community in the United States lost roughly 5 percent of its public health protection, including efforts to monitor community health status, investigate and control disease outbreaks, and educate the public about health risks and prevention strategies. Those hardest hit experienced reductions of more than 25 percent. When looking at the numbers, research reveals that the communities that experienced the largest increases in unemployment and the largest reductions in public health spending during the economic recession saw the most severe fall in local public health delivery. Also related to unemployment, the research found that a doubling of unemployment rate was associated with a 6.3 percent decline in the availability of public health activities in the average community. As drastic as these cuts appear at their surface, Dr. Mays told attendees that their full impact is yet to be recognized.

Public health is operating under the tyranny of short-term thinking. A desire to reduce funding now is resulting in shortsightedness when it comes to the future of the United States health care system. When considering the mounting list of demands and challenges facing health care today, including increasing costs and an aging population, continued cuts will do more harm than good. Despite what policymakers may think, “Cuts to the nation’s health are certainly not trivial,” said Dr. Mays. “Research shows they will have a direct impact.”

Read more about Dr. Mays’s research in the one pager “Evidence Links Public Health Services to Stronger Communities,” and follow along with his team’s research through his blog.

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