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Smith: State vaccine lottery money better spent on public health

MORGANTOWN — Monongalia County Health Officer Lee Smith recently offered his opinion on Ohio giving away $1 million in a vaccination incentive lottery.

“That is just nails on a chalkboard, because I think if you gave public health $1 million, we’d do a lot better than a flipping lottery, but those are my own comments,” he said.

Cue Gov. Jim Justice … and Baby Dog.

“We’re going to make some West Virginians millionaires,” the governor said, pooch in tow, hours after Smith’s remarks.

During his latest COVID briefing, Justice announced West Virginia’s own vaccine incentive lottery that will kick off on West Virginia Day — June 20 — and include large cash payouts, pickup trucks and college scholarships.

He credited Ohio for the idea.

The vaccine sweepstakes comes as Smith is already on edge about the state’s support for public health and the Monongalia County Health Department, in particular.

Smith points to the state’s announced 2022 fiscal year aid for health departments as an example, noting the MCHD will receive $645.441.17 — the fourth highest allocation.

Kanawha-Charleston and Mid-Ohio Valley will both receive over $1 million.

“My issue with this is are we to say that Kanawha County is the epitome of public health in this state that we should all be like them in order to receive that kind of funding? Is Mid-Ohio Valley the epitome of that? What are you paying for here,” Smith asked, referencing the formula used to generate the allocation numbers.

Kanawha County has about 178,000 people. Monongalia County has about 106,000 people.

“We’re growing. They’re shrinking, but this formula hasn’t changed in a decade,” he said.

It was explained that the formula considers a number of factors, including population, poverty rate and how rural a county is, among other things.

Smith has repeatedly gone after the state for its seeming lack of faith in public health, raising issues ranging from a chronic lack of funding to the recently adopted law giving local governments veto power over health department mandates.

Smith previously said public health in West Virginia has never really recovered from a 25% reduction in state funding in 2016 — about $4 million. He said roughly half that number has since been returned.

He said as far back as 15 years ago a Marshal University analysis indicated West Virginia’s public health sector was the most underfunded of a chronically underfunded resource nationwide.

“It was given to the legislature that it would take $42 million as one-time startup. Then a healthy increase in yearly funding. So the legislature received that, graciously, and then immediately ignored it,” Smith said. “It’s not that anybody’s got $42 million growing on a tree that they can throw in there, but it does make you wonder whether you support public health or not.”

In the meantime, Smith said, the state’s aid formula for health departments needs to be revisited.

“Hopefully we can address some of this in the legislature, that this formula is antiquated and doesn’t award accomplishment,” he said.