Lawmakers in Helena are eviscerating vital health programs and betraying public trust.

So says a letter from the Missoula City-County Board of Health to members of the Health and Human Services Joint Appropriations Committee. Adopted on Thursday by the board, the letter urges lawmakers to reconsider recent actions.

"As citizens charged with protecting local public health, we are certain that it never pays to allow disease to run unchecked," reads the letter, addressed to the committee and its chairman, Rep. Don Roberts, R-Billings "Doing so, and furthering this neglect by disregarding a vote of the people, betrays the public trust."

Also on Thursday, Missoula City-County Health Department director Ellen Leahy offered a legislative update to the board, noting the programs lawmakers are putting at risk and public health concerns their decisions would create.

"When things as basic as immunizations and drinking water are truly under this level of dismantling, it's not a time to give up," Leahy said. "It's a time to call your legislators."

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Here are the bills as well as funding and program cuts discussed at the board meeting:

Leahy described House Bill 227 as "extremely dangerous." The pending legislation would allow "religious and medical exemptions to immunization" for children in daycare, a situation that puts infants in particular in peril. Approved 8-7 in committee, she said the bill is especially troublesome given the recent outbreak of pertussis, or whooping cough. The "highly contagious" disease recently landed three infants in the hospital.

"To see that bill move forward is very worrisome," Leahy said.

She said House Bill 352 also poses grave health problems. It would allow "the use of bottled water for a public water system to achieve compliance with a maximum contaminant level of nitrate." That means if a restaurant or bar has too many nitrates in its water, it could get around water quality standards by posting signs warning the tap water isn't potable and providing bottled water instead.

"If you have nitrates in your drinking water, then your drinking water has probably just been through someone's septic system," or a farm field, Leahy said.

The bottled water loophole doesn't take into account things like using water to make ice cubes, cook and brew coffee. Leahy said the bill came about because of one establishment that can't meet standards for nitrate and fecal coliform.

"We need to have these standards so we can eradicate these problems - not get rid of the law instead," Leahy said.

Funding for tobacco prevention was gutted, contrary to the will of Montanans, she said. In 2002, Montana voters set aside 32 percent of tobacco settlement money for prevention. It's not tax money, yet she said legislators cut $16.8 million for the biennium, leaving an inadequate sliver for programs on reservations.

"They defunded, basically just destroyed, Montana's Tobacco Use Prevention Program," Leahy said.

And health officials are still up against tobacco industry spending that will amount to some $33 million in Montana this year, said the health department's Erica Rollins. That's some $90,000 a day.

"Most of that is done in a way to target kids," said Rollins, senior community health specialist.

Tobacco remains the No. 1 preventable cause of disease and death, with 1,400 deaths a year in Montana. And she said 90 percent of people who smoke start at or before the age of 18.

The prevention program targets youth, and the department counted a 45 percent drop in young smokers from 2000 to 2010 - from 27 percent to 15 percent.

"We are absolutely outraged by these proposed cuts to the Montana Tobacco Use Prevention Program," said Rikki Henderson of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

Programs in Montana are used as a model in other states, she said. Urging legislators to reinstate funding, Henderson said when Michigan lost prevention money, tobacco use rates jumped an estimated 12 percent among youth.

Women, children and farmers would be affected with other cuts. Called WIC, the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program is taking a possible $100,000 hit. It provides fresh fruits and vegetables to women and children - and customers for farmers.

The health department's Mary Pittaway said the program has resulted in healthy changes to people's eating habits and connected farmers to families, but it would be "eliminated in one fell swoop."

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Leahy said lawmakers also turned away federal money aimed at Montana, but she said the decision doesn't cut federal spending. It just redirects the dollars to other states.

In the letter to the legislative committee, the Board of Health also notes other programs that would take critical hits with the cuts. One would leave "11,000 ailing low-income seniors" without aid in purchasing prescription medications; another would "diminish the critical capacity of Montana's biological reference laboratory for identifying contagious diseases and waterborne and food-borne outbreaks, which have increased in recent years."

The board asked lawmakers to respond directly so its members can offer explanations: "We strongly recommend you reconsider these actions and we request a reply addressing our concerns which we can share with our constituents."

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.

 

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