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State makes Youngstown an offer it couldn't refuse



Published: Sun, April 7, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



The Ohio Department of Health has approved a $50,000 grant for Youngstown in its fight against the spread of AIDS. That's the good news. The bad news is that the $50,000 is not only supposed to take care of the city's needs, but must be used by the Youngstown City Health District in a five-county effort. So, why didn't Youngstown just say, "Thanks, but no thanks?"

The answer to that question illustrates just how heavy-handed state bureaucrats can be and brings to the fore the whole issue of unfunded mandates. According to Neil Altman, Youngstown's health commissioner, the Ohio Department of Health threatened to pull state grants to the city that now fund AIDS and sexually transmitted disease education and intervention programs. Youngstown receives $188,455 from Columbus for its AIDS programs and $20,000 for programs targeting other sexually transmitted diseases.

"I didn't want to lose our AIDS educators, so I agreed," Altman said, explaining why he accepted the $50,000. "I feel like we've been blackmailed into it."

Lest anyone think that the Youngstown City Health District is being parochial, lazy or simply greedy, it is important to note that the city health board was willing to take on the added responsibility of identifying individuals who are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and others they may have infected. However, Altman and the board figured that to cover four counties in this region -- Mahoning, Trumbull, Columbiana and Ashtabula -- they would need four nurses. Thus, the state was asked to provide about $250,000. And for that sum, a comprehensive program on sexually transmitted diseases would have been launched.

Insult to injury: However, the Ohio Department of Health nixed that idea and then added bureaucratic insult to injury. The department notified the Youngstown health department that it was being assigned to identify individuals exposed to HIV or syphilis in five -- yes, five -- counties: Mahoning, Trumbull, Columbiana, Ashtabula and Jefferson.

Barbara Bradley, chief of the Ohio Department of Health's Bureau of Infectious Diseases, says the state health department decided to bow to the wishes of local entities, which wanted their own employees, rather than state employees, to conduct HIV studies.

"We wanted to push more money down to local communities," Bradley contended.

What money? Do state officials really believe that $50,000 is an adequate sum for a program that encompasses five counties?

With Youngstown's back against the wall, state legislators from the region should join forces in urging the state to increase funding for this important undertaking.




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