Public Health Faces Big Cuts

From now on, hundreds of East Texans may have to go without prescription medications. That's because the Smith County Public Health District is facing cut backs. Free medicines and lab tests could be eliminated, along with the loss of 6 to 10 positions.

The SCPHD says the number of people below the poverty line needing free medical care has risen from 62% in 2001, to 71.5% this spring. Combined with a decrease in grant money, the Public Health District had to make some cuts. Those cuts designed to save money in the short run could end up costing much more to tax payers in the future.

"It's a good plan here," says Barbara Sanders. "There's a lot of people coming here for treatment." Sanders uses the Smith County Public Health District Clinic to help control her diabetes. She relies on the free prescription medication and lab tests to check her insulin levels. But a new sign on the door says the Clinic will no longer pay for prescription medicine. It may mean she'll have to look elsewhere for help in the future.

"If you've got family, you can contact them. It's not going to work all the time. Not too many people like to pay for other people's medicine."

"Probably, preventative care is going to go down the tubes." says SCPHD Director Nic Sciarrini. He says the Public Health District can no longer afford to provide the medicine and testing for free. But he worries what will happen to patients like Barbara when they go without their prescription drugs. "At some point down the line, there's going to be a complication. That's going to be a high dollar complication. That's not going to be a four or five hundred dollars emergency room visit. That's going to be a many, many thousand dollars, maybe even hundreds of thousands of dollars to resolve that one patient."

Barbara worries losing out on the medication will also force her to eventually lose her health and freedom. "In the ER or the nursing home. Because if you go into the nursing home, most likely they'll take care of all your medicines.

Like the hundreds of East Texans who visit this clinic every year, Barbara now faces tough choices between medicine or food; between her quality of life and her lifestyle.

Nic Sciarrini says he has not yet decided which positions would be cut. And, he warns further cuts may be necessary after the next budget is put together in August.

Stephen Parr, reporting.