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  1. Opinion

Editorial: The high cost of cutting health budgets

Running government on the cheap has a high price, and state lawmakers should finally start paying attention to the devastation it causes. Years of Florida budget cuts to essential government agencies, including the Departments of Health, Children and Families, and Corrections, have started to bear the bitter fruit of skyrocketing new HIV infections, a dysfunctional mental health system and violent, understaffed prisons and mental hospitals that have far too many unexplained patient and inmate deaths. Siphoning resources from government via haphazard tax cuts rips the social fabric of the state, which harms everyone. Because it is about people, the erosion of the social infrastructure is even more insidious than the potholed roads and crumbling bridges of the physical infrastructure. The Legislature should put a stop to it.

Florida's Surgeon General and Secretary of Health Dr. John Armstrong should face some tough questions from members of the Senate today during his confirmation hearing. While Armstrong has been the state's top medical officer, HIV rates have soared in Florida, reaching 6,240 new cases through November 2015, the highest number of new cases since 2002. At the same time that HIV infection rates are rising, state leaders have been steadily trimming the Department of Health's budget. Florida's 67 county health departments have lost 2,240 positions since Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2011, according to the Tampa Bay Times, which detailed the effect of runaway budget cuts on Monday. The Health Department has shed more than 3,000 jobs since 2011. And Scott isn't finished. His 2016-17 budget calls for cutting 718 Health Department jobs, including 507 in county health departments. The proposal is expected to save $13 million, a pittance when weighed against the value of human life.

AIDS has killed 39 million people worldwide and more than 650,000 in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the United States, more than 1.2 million people are living with HIV. While infection rates around the country have been falling, Florida's rates continue to rise, contributing to the 50,000 new infections in the country each year. The Legislature has the power to help the state reverse course.

Public health experts are fighting to convince a new generation of youth — unfamiliar with the way AIDS ravaged the country in the 1980s and 1990s — that the disease is deadly and incurable. They also must reach an older generation who witnessed HIV diagnoses as a death sentence but now engage in risky behavior because they see the success of antiretroviral drugs and no longer fear the disease. Starving the government agencies that could combat ignorance exacerbates the problem.

State health officials should devote more resources to public education efforts to prevent new infections. Lawmakers should ignore the governor's request for $1 billion in budget cuts and fully fund the government, particularly the social services agencies that cater to the state's most vulnerable populations, including the sick, low-income and minorities. Helping them helps everyone. The lives of Floridans should count more than the interests of big businesses seeking a tax break.

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