In its recent Biennial Performance Audit of the Baltimore City Health Department, the city’s Department of Audits noted several of the health department’s successes, including its Naloxone program, which reversed at least 1,439 overdoses in 2016 and 2017 alone. The audit also reported several failures to meet expectations, recommending that the department increase staffing levels to meet demand. In its response to the audit, the Health Department referenced chronic underfunding of public health initiatives within the city budget, explaining “the decision to hire additional staff is contingent upon the availability of additional budget dollars.”
Open Society Institute-Baltimore has worked closely with the Baltimore City Health Department for two decades, and we know that the department and its current leader, Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen, have been doing commendable work to keep the city’s residents and visitors safe, healthy, and informed. The department’s many accomplishments have been noted nationally time and time again, most recently when it was named Local Health Department of the Year by the National Association of City and County Health Officials.
It is time for our local and state governments to commit to increasing the support that the Baltimore City Health Department receives so that it can sustain and expand its efforts to make this city a standard-bearer for public health outcomes.
The state, in particular, must ensure that Baltimore receives its fair share of available funding to prevent overdoses and provide treatment. Currently, the state allocates 16% of its Naloxone resources to Baltimore, even though it has 33% of the state’s overdoses. As the audit notes, the Health Department has had tremendous success saving lives with Naloxone, but that success will be limited without sufficient resources.
Over the past three years, Open Society Institute has worked closely with the health department on a number of important issues. OSI supported the Don’t Die campaign, which has been a leading voice in the efforts to reduce the stigma associated with substance use and to give community members sound practices that they can implement to keep their loved ones safe and to respond in the case of an overdose. We also have partnered with the health department to improve the use of technology to help individuals be connected with much needed treatment and health related services.
We will continue to partner with the health department in its persistent effort to lessen the impact of addiction on individuals, families and communities by making Naloxone widely available, reducing the stigma that often inhibits individuals from seeking treatment, and making treatment more accessible to all who need it. We will also continue to join the health department in advocating for all city and state institutions to take steps to reduce the harmful use of drugs by making adequate funding available for treatment and treating addiction as a health issue and not as a criminal matter. We are pleased that the health department benefits from the partnerships that it has with the Open Society Institute and other foundations. But it is clear that foundation support cannot effectively fill in the notable gap in funding that the health department experiences.