Idaho Health and Welfare asks the Legislature to shore up public health

Department’s director on Wednesday presented requests to House Health and Welfare Committee

By: - February 10, 2022 4:09 am
Photo of Idaho Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen presents to the Idaho House Health and Welfare Committee on Feb. 9, 2022.

Photo of Idaho Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen presents to the Idaho House Health and Welfare Committee on Feb. 9, 2022.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is the largest government agency in the state — with oversight of everything from laboratory testing, to foster child placements, to Medicaid health insurance, to food assistance, to homes for people with disabilities, and much more.

Now rounding the corner into the third year of a COVID-19 pandemic, the department’s director went before the Idaho House Health and Welfare Committee on Wednesday to talk about the money it needs to carry out its responsibilities — including funds to aid functions that are critical to pandemic preparedness and response.

Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen showed the committee how the department wants to spend millions of dollars in federally funded COVID-19 emergency grants. The department would use about $46 million to support public health services: $5.7 million to bolster Idaho’s public health workforce, $16 million for prevention of infectious diseases, $5.4 million for small hospitals and $19 million for efforts to reduce health disparities.

“We do not anticipate that they will create ongoing expense, and they’re primarily being used to deal with the current situation and also build infrastructure for the public health system of the future,” Jeppesen said.

The department wants to use $30 million in federal funds to increase the state’s ability to respond to COVID-19 and other public health threats; $2.8 million to increase testing for places like jails and assisted living homes; and $1.1 million to modernize Idaho’s vital records system.

The vital records system is integral to tracking things such as deaths from COVID-19.

In addition to the one-time funds to help bring Idaho’s vital-records system up to date, Jeppesen said the department is asking for approval for three additional full-time positions to its vital records team.

“The department manages all the vital state records across the state. So, that’s birth certificates, death certificates, marriage certificates, all those sorts of things. We actually had a very large increase in volume, and we’re starting to get behind on things like birth certificates,” Jeppesen said. “And that’s pretty important, because if you’re a new parent and you’ve just had your child, your health insurance is going to ask you for a birth certificate usually within the first two months or you miss your window to get (the child) on the insurance.”

That hasn’t yet happened, he said, but the department has gotten “dangerously close a few times this year,” Jeppesen said.

The department also wants to, among other things:

  • use $135.5 million of federal funds to help Idahoans pay for child care.
  • use $20.8 million of federal funds to help low-income Idahoans pay for utilities and to weatherize their homes.
  • use $16.5 million of federal funds to support community-based health care for mental illness and substance abuse.
  • use about $15 million of state dollars to fund and staff a redesigned Southwest Idaho Treatment Center program. SWITC is a longtime inpatient psychiatric care facility for people with disabilities. Under a new model, SWITC would have a crisis unit, and a “step-down unit” to help people transition out of the facility.
  • use $15 million in state funds to help transform three Idaho mental health facilities into places where Idahoans can receive care in a residential setting. Idaho has been forced to send children to other states for that kind of care, which is costly and makes it hard for kids to stay well as they return to their hometowns.

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Audrey Dutton
Audrey Dutton

Audrey Dutton was a senior investigative reporter with the Idaho Capital Sun after 10 years at the Idaho Statesman. Her favorite topics to cover included health care, business, consumer protection issues and white collar crime. Before coming home to Idaho, Dutton worked as a journalist in Minnesota, New York, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Dutton's work has earned dozens of state, regional and national awards for investigative reporting, health care and business reporting, data visualization and more.