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Health committee discusses new spending plans

Tuesday, November 3, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

Before adopting the city’s proposed budget in September, City Council added more than $6.5 million in spending for health, human services, social services and quality of life programs. With the new fiscal year in full swing, Shannon Jones, director of the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department, explained Monday how those funds will be spent through September 2016.

“In my 40 years in public health, I’ve never been in a department that had this level of funding provided to public health infrastructure,” Jones told Council’s Health and Human Services Committee. “By no means will we be able to solve the issues of disparities in our community, but it’s a great start for our community, and we feel that we’re on the way to begin to address those things.”

The funding includes $2.5 million to enhance the health department’s ability to provide services to the community, $1.05 million for health equity contracts, $1.825 million for social service contracts, $740,000 for rental assistance programs and $400,000 in one-time funds for healthy food availability initiatives.

Jones said that, based on the added funding Council approved in the budget, the health department will fund 37 additional full-time staff positions this fiscal year, on top of the two that were included in the proposed budget. These new staff members will be added in “phases,” he said, with some coming on by the end of the year and others early next year.

Council Member Ora Houston, who chairs the committee, provided her impressions of the spending plans in an interview with the Austin Monitor. “It needs to be a more holistic approach, and that’s what I think I heard today, that there are opportunities with the way the money is being allocated,” she said.

“During the budget process, I talked about how we continue to create silos – this pot of money goes for this group, and this pot of money (for this group),” Houston explained. “I said, ‘To me, it appears that what we’re doing is we’re resegregating ourselves rather than talking about (for example) how chronic disease impacts a wide range of people and we need to focus on those people.”

Prior to the presentation, community stakeholders expressed concerns and preferences about how the city should allocate the funding.

Vincent Cobalis, vice chair of the Asian American Quality of Life Advisory Commission, pointed out that the Asian-American and Pacific Islander population is the fastest growing demographic in Austin and Travis County. He requested more culturally sensitive health care services, especially for those with limited English proficiency. “There’s been good progress in this area for Hispanics but not as much for Asian-American populations,” he said.

Jill Ramirez, chair of the Hispanic/Latino Quality of Life Resource Advisory Commission, thanked Council for supporting many of the commission’s initiatives in the current budget. “We know that it was considerably more than we’ve had in the past,” she said.

Ramirez said that she is particularly interested in funding for “Latino chronic care initiatives,” adding that more than 330,000 Hispanic Travis County residents have diabetes.

Health department enhancements, Jones explained, include $259,000 for prevention of chronic diseases such as diabetes; $231,000 to add staff for African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American quality of life initiatives and ensure that health programs and services are “culturally and linguistically appropriate”; $342,000 for prevention of communicable diseases such as HIV; and $338,000 for maternal child and adolescent services, including an expansion for teen pregnancy prevention programs with a focus on populations with high levels of disparity.

Health equity contracts include $390,000 for “culturally specific, holistic programs that prioritize communities most directly impacted by maternal health inequities,” taking into account language and transportation needs; $410,000 to address African-American health disparities; $50,000 for services for the elderly; $100,000 for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people of color health services; and $100,000 for immigrant mental health.

For many, if not all, of the services he listed, Jones was careful to note that the department plans to deliver them or ensure that contractors deliver them in ways that take into account population disparities, language barriers and cultural differences.

In terms of social service contracts, Jones said that the health department plans to maintain funding for current services and then gather input from social service agencies in order to decide how to expand those services for the rest of the year.

Houston said that choosing the right contractors is one way the department can provide services in a more culturally appropriate manner. “It’s important that people, especially people who are immigrants, who are refugees from other countries, that there is a connection to their community, and we’ve not, as a society, used that, sometimes,” Houston said.

Houston added that ensuring that services are provided in the right places and at the right times – not in the middle of the workday, for example – also helps ensure that people in need can access services.

Jones said that health department staff plans to release solicitations for contracts in December, and those contracts should go into effect in March of next year.

The health department, Jones continued, is working with the Office of Sustainability to determine the best way to spend the one-time healthy food availability program funds, which include a $150,000 healthy corner store initiative focused on the 78744 and 78745 ZIP codes.

The $740,000 going toward rental assistance, Jones added, will target homeless individuals or people who are facing imminent homelessness, categories into which he said thousands of Austinites fall.

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