By Mike Steely

“It’s not in our charter, we don’t have to fund them. Getting something is better than nothing,” one of the Knox County officials told The Focus after a debate on cutting indigent care funds.

Is local government funding of health care for poor people a responsibility or not? That seems to be the question as Knox County faces a proposed cutback in money going to various programs.

A budget request for the Knox County Health Department from Knox County Glenn Jacobs is seeing more and more questions from citizens and several commissioners. Health Department Director Dr. Martha Buchanan’s budget request, with decreased funding for the Indigent Care Program as requested by the mayor, was postponed during the commission’s meeting last week after the request was pulled from the Consent List and opened for discussion.

The matter came up after two citizens, Vivian Shipe and David Waite, opposed the reduction in funding of the program. Shipe cited an upcoming commission vote on June 6th that includes a 30 percent cut in county funding for poor people seeking medical care. She said the health department had originally asked for $200,000 in additional funding before the proposed cuts.

Shipe suggested the proposed budget to the health department be postponed or sent back to the mayor’s office.

Later in the meeting the commission took up the resolution which called for reductions in funding the health department and eventually decided to postpone a decision. Several commissioners chimed in on the topic.

Brad Anders said since the budget hasn’t been approved the resolution was premature. Evelyn Gill said more information is needed before a vote and Dailey said more discussion is needed.

One commissioner suggested individual meetings with Dr. Buchanan but Commissioner Randy Smith said that would deprive the public of information.

Most of the county funding goes to the Cherokee Health System through the health department and the budget proposal cuts the funding back from $1.2 million to $695,000. The indigent care part of that gets $340,000 less than last year.

Dr. Buchanan explained that Cherokee Health also receives federal and other funding  and said that the parties involved have said they would have to live with the cuts.

Commissioner Larsen Jay wondered why the agencies involved haven’t appeared before the commission and called that non-appearance “odd.”

“We met with them and advised them they should do whatever it takes that was appropriate,” Buchanan said. She said the indigent care involves poor people between the ages of 18 to 64 who have no insurance or can’t afford medical care.

“The mayor asked we be more creative,” she said after he gave her his proposed budget, adding, “We’ll work with our partners to maximize what’s out there.”

Chairman Hugh Nystrom said the cuts to funding Cherokee Health actually are about 43 percent along with cuts to special physicians and grants to hospitals.

“The mayor came to me and asked that we look at this program,” Buchanan replied again to the commission.

“This is a moral statement; it impacts the indigent people in our community. It is not an acceptable cut,” Commissioner Gill said.

Commissioner Jay said that most of the indigent patients are Knoxville city residents and said the city doesn’t contribute to the care.

Nystrom said funding the health department is “a very important part of what we do.”

Law Director Richard (Bud) Armstrong said that an appropriation can be made in June and voted up or down and could be placed in the budget.

The resolution to accept the cuts to the health department’s budget, as proposed by the county mayor, was postponed until the June 6 meeting. Mayor Jacobs has said that funding health care with local funds is unfair.