INDIANAPOLIS – Public health officials and other Indiana leaders are taking a closer look at funding for health departments.

Public health funding was the topic of Thursday’s meeting of the Governor’s Public Health Commission.

“We know that the public health system is underfunded,” said Shane Hatchett, chief of staff for the Indiana Department of Health.

Hatchett said it’s a nationwide problem, but it’s even worse in Indiana, citing statistics showing that Indiana’s public health spending per person is 40 percent lower than the national average.

According to health officials, one of the big problems is how health departments are funded, and it’s slightly different in each county. 

The biggest funding source is local property taxes, Hatchett said.

But then each department has to find the rest of the funding on its own, often through grants and fees, according to Mindy Waldron, administrator for the Allen County Department of Health.

“We have to seek our funding,” Waldron said. “And we have to charge people user fees. It isn’t provided to people. Safety isn’t provided.”

The funding issue particularly presents challenges when it comes to staffing.

“The salaries that I pay in a health department – sometimes we see some of our employees pulled away and hired by the hospital systems,” said Dr. Virginia Caine, director of the Marion County Health Department.

And many rural health departments rely heavily on part-time staff, according to Dr. Kris Box, Indiana state health commissioner. 

One potential solution the commission discussed: sharing some services between health departments.

“Does every health department have to have a certain level of staff, or are there some positions or some resources that we can share together?” Dr. Caine said. “So, we want to look at different models.”

Waldron said ultimately, she wants to see money and services divided more consistently among health departments.

“We’re going to need significant dollars if we want to be better prepared for the next health crisis in Indiana,” she said.

The Indiana General Assembly likely would not consider any additional funding for public health until the state budget is rewritten in 2023.

The Governor’s Public Health Commission is expected to issue a report with recommendations on improving Indiana’s public health system by the end of next summer.