ROCKVILLE — The Health and Human Services committee of the Montgomery County Council met to discuss the proposed 2020 operating budget.
In his proposed 2020 budget, County Executive Marc Elrich has allocated $3.23 million toward Health and Human Services (HHS) — which is about 5.7 percent of the total operating budget.
The two areas within HHS with the largest proposed funding are Children Youth and Family Services, at 26.3 percent and Public Health Services, at 23.7 percent.
The committee, chaired by Councilmember Gabe Albornoz, also includes councilmembers Craig Rice and Evan Glass. The committee seemed receptive to the requests of HHS during their meeting on April 25 and was willing to allocate more funds to the department to continue the services it provides.
“Whether it’s our African American population, whether it’s our Latino and Hispanic Population and our Asian American populations, it just makes sense for us to do a little bit more just from a programmatic standpoint,” Rice said. “I’d like to move three tranches of $50,000 for each of those minority health initiatives.”
Each minority health initiative is designed to serve its community in a unique way. For instance, the Latino Health Initiative aims to be cohesive culturally and linguistically with the Spanish-speaking community, while the African American Health Initiative looks at six major health areas to focus on. These include cardiovascular disease and maternal and child health, among other concerns, according to HHS.
Each minority health program is available to all residents, and each program engages in outreach and health education efforts.
Another topic the committee discussed with HHS was the rise in sexually transmitted diseases (STD’s).
Dr. Travis Gayles, who serves as county health officer and chief of public health services briefed the committee on the upward trend Montgomery is experiencing.
“STD rates are on the rise — gonorrhea and chlamydia, in particular — and they’re disproportionately impacting young persons aged 15 to 24,” Gayles said.
He explained that his office has been having conversations on how to expand resources at the high school level. He also said that there is a continuing conversation about increasing accessibility to condoms in school health and wellness centers around the country.
“One of the efforts that we’ve looked at and we’re continuing to explore is utilizing health and wellness centers after hours to provide services,” Gayles said.
He added that he has had an in-depth conversation with the Recreation Department on the ways that HHS can collaborate with the department’s youth and young adult programs. A joint effort between the two departments could help raise awareness of STDs within the county, along with increasing accessibility to screening and treatment.
Now these efforts take on added importance with the recent finding by the Board of Health that Montgomery County is one of the top 40 counties out of 3,000 that collectively contributes 50 percent of new HIV cases, Gayles said.
“STD services go hand-in-hand with HIV, particularly for young people,” Gayles said. “So, building a network for HIV prevention is contingent upon having a solid infrastructure that provides adequate access to STD prevention as well as access to screening and treatment.”
Rice, who also serves as chair of the Education and Culture Committee within the Montgomery County Council, urged continued efforts in schools and youth programs.
“We want to make sure that countywide we’re sending this message, but especially in those areas where we’re seeing a higher incidence,” Rice said.
The committee also discussed the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA) which falls under HHS.
VITA provides free tax help and free electronic filing for low to moderate income individuals and families.
Under the proposed 2020 budget the VITA program would experience a funding cut of $3,870 according to HHS. A cut like this would force a full-time staff member to go to part-time, according to the department.
Betty Lam, the chief of the office of community affairs for Montgomery County, explained that cutting a full-time position to part time could make the department lose the employee altogether.
“I saw with my own two eyes how powerful the program is and how it relieves so much stress from the county residents,” Albornoz said.
Councilmembers Glass and Rice both were in support of providing additional funding for the VITA program.
The committee’s recommendations will be reviewed by the full council before final budget decisions are made on June 1.