The general health of our citizens is a real and expensive problem. West Virginia is being brought to its knees by the high cost of health care for its aging population, which is generally in poor health. The statistics speak for themselves with our high incidence of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, prescription drug abuse, and tooth decay and gum disease.
Poor health statistics and associated health care costs divert funds needed to grow our economy and to educate our workforce. Year after year we have poured resources into healthcare, debated how to fund retiree health insurance, and spent hundreds of millions of dollars in our limited state budget dealing with the consequences of poor public health. We cannot afford the escalating costs of continuing what seem to be never-ending increases in chronic illnesses, premature deaths and unaffordable health care costs. These costs have the potential to bankrupt the state.
Medicaid costs are overwhelming the state’s budget. Other post employment benefits, especially retiree health care costs are threatening local, county and state budgets alike. This is in addition to the indirect costs to the state as a result of the effects of illness and disease on worker productivity. To significantly reduce these costs over the next five to ten years, West Virginia needs make a strategic investment in its future. It is the fiscally and ethically responsible thing to do.
Our focus on the funding of health care is necessary and very appropriate. Yet, we need to focus on health and wellness to prevent chronic illness as well as doing a better job obtaining and using data to evaluate and influence cost-effective health policies and investments. Schools of Public Health do both. It is time to step up the effort to train our young people for careers in public health and place them in communities across West Virginia. West Virginia University’s proposal to establish a School of Public Health is both timely and strategic if our state is to meet its full potential.
Core elements in place
A school of public health would educate professionals who understand how small community interventions can drive large improvements in health statistics. It would provide training to the next generation of public health professionals and to other health providers who need to understand data. It would design and rigorously test policies so that we know what works, and what does not. It would coordinate with state and local health officials to apply the knowledge that they have generated and to attract federal and private funding.
WVU already has in place the core elements of a school of public health. It offers both master’s and PhD degrees in public health in the School of Medicine. Many of the courses are offered through extended learning programs allowing mid-career professionals from around the state to obtain advanced skills without leaving the workforce.
Enrollment in existing public health programs at WVU is increasing rapidly. The master’s program MPH has doubled enrollment since 2008.
Within the confines of its four existing schools (medicine, pharmacy, nursing and dentistry), it competes for funded research, trains young professionals for good jobs, and influences thinking about how best to improve health in West Virginia and beyond.
But it does all these things under a considerable handicap. The lack of an independent, accredited public health school means that WVU and our state are less competitive for many available sources of external funding. They are limited in their recruitment of top faculty and of students who want to make a difference in public health. The public health research base we need to make wise decisions is underdeveloped.
West Virginia University can establish and maintain a school of public health that will have a strong statewide presence, expand opportunities for learning, and conduct research that will transform our communities and our lives.
With a minimal investment today, we can create a school that will be self-supporting based on student tuition, external research funding and other revenue streams. The reason this is possible is that 80 percent of the minimum faculty positions already exist at WVU. Most of the facilities are in place in Morgantown and at the WVU Medical School campus in Charleston.
A poll of WVU undergraduates revealed substantial interest in public health offerings — and a willingness to pay a tuition premium for health programs.
If state support could be provided over the first five years with the understanding that thereafter the WVU School of Public Health would be on its own financially, this could be a very successful strategic investment. It would allow for capturing tens of millions in federal research dollars, the education of health care professionals for our rural communities and the redefinition of public health and wellness in our state.
Public health is a top priority in Washington, D.C., too. Schools of public health will be first in line to claim vital service and research dollars for their states.
We must strategically allocate our resources. Let’s not waste them, or this moment. We need a school of public health as soon as possible. It’s not just good policy; it is a highly effective use of our limited dollars. Our health is our future.
- This commentary first appeared in The Charleston Gazette.