Iowans had an opportunity to look under the hood of the new Branstad Reynolds administration on April 11 when Iowa Department of Public Health Director Dr. Mariannette Miller-Meeks appeared at an event organized by the Johnson County Task Force on Aging. Doug Beardsley, Director of the County Public Health Department made the introduction and for an hour, Dr. Miller-Meeks answered questions and talked about her vision for the IDPH. She started her talk with a hat tip to Johnson County as “one of the healthiest counties in the state.” Once a politician, always a politician.
If Blog for Iowa has been skeptical about Dr. Miller-Meeks’ appointment to IDPH, the word around the state is that she takes her roles and responsibilities seriously and has worked diligently to understand department functions, funding streams
and workforce development issues. As a former President of the Iowa Medical Society, a nurse and an ophthalmologist, Dr. Miller-Meeks is well credentialed for her position at IDPH. Those of us following her two failed attempts at election to the U.S. Congress in the Second District must acknowledge she is a hard worker and is used to working long hours. It is only fair to give her the benefit of a doubt.
During an answer to the first question, Dr. Miller-Meeks outlined her vision to “ensure that the public health infrastructure stays intact” during a time of budget cuts and government reorganization. To do this, much of her attention has been towards what she described as the “strange animal of public health funding streams” (52% from federal grants, 23% from the state and 22% from fees and licenses). Her focus is on maintaining the funding streams that provide services. There was no discussion of new services, and she indicated as much in answers about over-medication of seniors, senior addiction to prescription drugs, geriatric care and Alzheimer disease treatment.
When she took office in January, IDPH was presented with an $84 million cut for FY 2011 from the 2010 legislative session. Since the prior director, Tom Newton, had made the assessment of where to make budget cuts, Dr. Miller-Meeks could focus on FY 2012 which was not targeted for further budget cuts by incoming Governor Branstad. Even though FY 2012 was not targeted for cuts, Dr. Miller-Meeks has to accommodate the 3% funding cut made in FY 2011 for FY 2012.
Dr. Miller-Meeks has been charged by the Governor to work with the Directors of the Department of Inspections and Appeals, Department on Aging and Department of Human Services to determine efficiencies that cut costs while leaving delivery of current services seamless to individuals. Her view of public health is more “holistic” in that she does not believe single issues, such as treatment of Alzheimer disease,should be broken out and handled separately. What she favors is that as the state transitions to the 2014 Affordable Care Act implementation, an overarching view of public health be considered, departments that overlap with Public Health work together and funding streams are channeled towards continuing current services to the extent possible. It is a tall order, but if she is successful, her vision could save Iowans money without compromising public health services.
One can tell Dr. Miller-Meeks is not long off the campaign trail, using transparent and politically correct language to refer to former IDPH Director Tom Newton and members of the Culver-Judge administration. She also mentioned the familiar theme, “where does the law prevent us from doing things?” It seems a government version of the Republican “Red Tape Tour” has found its way into IDPH.
When asked about legislation in the 2011 session, she was disappointed that the bill creating the health information network did not pass and favors mental health reform. Whatever the legislature does, she said her department “can continue without legislation.”
Dr. Miller-Meeks closed the forum with a discussion of preventative care, saying what most doctors will tell us, eat more fruits and vegetables, exercise 30 minutes at least three times per week, engage in our community, brush your teeth twice daily and floss, moderate alcohol consumption and quit smoking. She added an ophthalmologist’s perspective saying make sure you blink while looking at a computer screen or smart phone and “look for joy in life.”