Last month, I stood between my mother and daughter as the City Council approved my appointment as Chicago’s 24th public health commissioner. As a lifelong Chicagoan, this was a great honor that comes at a pivotal moment for our city. We have a chance to solidify the progress that has been made in promoting health in every neighborhood, yet we face the prospect of dramatic state budget cuts that will reduce health services for Chicago’s most vulnerable.
Earlier this year, Gov. Bruce Rauner suspended $26 million in social services and public health dollars. Following a public outcry, he reinstated that funding but continues to propose billions in additional cuts targeting those most in need, including adults facing mental illness and substance abuse as well as infants and children. Facing such bleak measures, how can we improve health for all?
I began asking similar questions many years ago. My parents and grandparents first moved to Chicago from Idaho, where they lived in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. When they arrived in their new city, they had little to their name; however, they received support from their church, neighbors and community organizations allowing them to raise my brothers and me in a safe and healthy home. I became a pediatrician to provide healthcare to children who were not as fortunate as I have been. After a few years, I decided to shift my focus to preventing disease for children and adults by joining the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH). Over the last 15 years, I have been able to develop policies, programs and systems that prevent infectious disease among residents of the city that welcomed and supported my parents and grandparents many years ago.
As Commissioner, I will be able to make an impact on a broader range of health priorities as I work with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other officials to develop Healthy Chicago 2.0, which will serve as the city’s health agenda for the next four years. It expands on the efforts of Healthy Chicago which the mayor released in 2011. Since then, our city has seen fewer children smoking and expanded free dental and vision programs in our schools. Healthy Chicago 2.0 focuses on health equity — assuring all 2.7 million Chicagoans have the opportunity my brothers and I had – to live a safe, healthy life. We have identified areas where health gaps are the greatest and will build actionable strategies to close those gaps. This plan requires the commitment of multiple partners including community organizations, providers and, of course, our State government.
However, Gov. Rauner is trying to take billions in resources away – resources that will help us ensure a healthier city for all. CDPH would lose all state funding for mental health treatment for uninsured residents and thousands of people with mental illness would be kicked out of residential programs – many of whom have nowhere to go and may end up on the streets.
Chicago would also lose significant funding for substance abuse treatment that saves lives and money by helping more people stay drug and crime free. Funding for the Tobacco Quitline, an evidence-based program that helps over 2,000 Chicagoans quit smoking monthly and maternal and child health services, which improve care during and after pregnancy, could be slashed. A reduction in Medicaid funding for children’s dental sealants could end CDPH’s dental services for school children living below the poverty line.
Gov. Rauner said there would be shared sacrifices when it came to our state’s fiscal crisis. I never imagined he would start by asking those who have the least to make the greatest sacrifice. The governor needs to understand that investments in public health, as well as housing, transportation, education and economic development are investments in our future. By working to improve all of these areas, we are creating a world where we all have the opportunity to live healthy and happy lives.
Dr. Julie Morita is commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health.