Governor Discusses Public Health Initiatives at GPHA Conference

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal was a keynote speaker at the Georgia Public Health Association’s recent Annual Meeting and Conference. His remarks about public health initiatives were outlined in the following article, which appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution April 14th.

Governor aims to aid residents’ well-being
Deal makes public health a state Cabinet post; youth obesity targeted.
By Carrie Teegardin
4-14-11 Atlanta Journal Constitution

Gov. Nathan Deal told public health leaders Wednesday Georgia is facing a costly health care crisis that demands the state’s attention. Deal’s remark comes on the heels of Georgia taking aim at improving health care in the state by creating a Cabinet-level post to oversee health initiatives.

“Over the last 10 years, Georgia’s public health has declined,” Deal said in a speech to the Georgia Public Health Association. “We live in a part of the country where our lifestyles and our dietary habits have contributed to the cost of those health care issues that are associated with that.”

Deal said the state needs to work hard to convince its citizens to do what they can to improve their health. An epidemic of childhood obesity needs to be a special focus, he said.

“We need a greater cooperative effort between our schools and our school lunch programs and the food that we are delivering to our children on a daily basis in that environment and make sure it complies with what we know are the best health practices and health standards,” Deal said.

While public health officials acknowledged the challenges ahead, they also celebrated the state Legislature’s recent passage of House Bill 214, which would create a new Georgia Department of Public Health. The bill was approved by the House and Senate and awaits the governor’s signature.

The bill doesn’t create any new public health programs. But supporters say elevating public health to a Cabinet-level post that isn’t under the umbrella of another department will allow the state’s health challenges to get the attention they deserve. Georgia ranks among the worst in the nation for its rates of infectious diseases, heart-related deaths and infant mortality. More than 1 in 4 Georgians is obese, and 1 in 6 still smokes. Few states have more uninsured residents than Georgia.

The state’s public health programs include everything from immunizations delivered at local health departments, to restaurant and septic tank inspections, to the responses to infectious disease outbreaks and major disasters such as a hurricane or terrorist attack. Public health also is responsible for education campaigns that push Georgians to do what they can to improve their own health.

Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, the state’s new director of public health, addressed the crowd after Deal’s remarks. She said childhood obesity will be among the issues that gets special attention under her leadership.

“Our children in the 10- to 17-year-old age range are the fattest children in the United States, except those in Mississippi,” Fitzgerald said. She said the state’s public health efforts are hampered by a series of budget cuts and vacancies in public health positions ranging from nurses to lab workers.

“Frankly, our ability to screen our babies, our ability to make sure our environment is safe for all of us and our ability to respond in times of emergency or times of extreme risk — those capabilities are at risk,” Fitzgerald said.