Kasich, GOP Play Politics with Public Health

Regular readers of this column and CityBeat already know plenty about Gov. John Kasich’s obnoxious, grating personality and autocratic, regressive style of governing from his dismal 12 months in office so far.

Jan 10, 2012 at 6:53 pm


egular readers of this column and CityBeat already know plenty about Gov. John Kasich’s obnoxious, grating personality and autocratic, regressive style of governing from his dismal 12 months in office so far.

Whether it’s Kasich’s disastrous overreaching in pushing through restrictions on the collective bargaining rights of public-sector labor unions or the guv’s cancelling $52 million in state funding that was pledged toward Cincinnati’s streetcar project (despite the fact it rated far higher than other projects that were funded), Our Man John in Columbus continues to fall beneath the already low expectations set for him.

Just how far Kasich has sunk, however, was revealed during the past week.

Based largely on factors like a mathematical error by a state worker and the alleged use of the wrong type font in an application, the Ohio Department of Health (ODH) pulled nearly $737,000 in funding from the Cincinnati Health Department.

The money comes from two grants: a roughly $500,000 grant for HIV education and prevention and a $230,000 grant for reducing sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The Cincinnati Health Department has operated its STD program since 1971 and received the grant since 1981, largely without any complaints.

But representatives of the Ohio Department of Health alleged Cincinnati had been a poor steward of the money and didn’t merit any further funding due to past poor performance.

Instead, ODH is giving the two grants the Public Health Department of Dayton and Montgomery County, and requiring that agency to give 90 percent of the funds to Hamilton County.

Put more simply, state officials are bypassing the city of Cincinnati and allocating the funds to our region through another agency, which has no experience in STD prevention. And the agency acting as the middleman in the transaction gets to keep a 10-percent administrative fee.

If that sounds fishy, wait, it gets even worse.

Cincinnati’s application for the STD grant got a 69 percent score from state officials; a passing grade is 70 percent. After local officials pointed out a mathematical error made by ODH that actually means Cincinnati should’ve received a 71 percent grade, the state agency refused to reconsider.

Meanwhile, Cincinnati’s application for the HIV grant got a 53 percent score. The low showing primarily was due to allegedly using the wrong formatting for an appendix. Still, at least two other regions in the state were allowed to correct their formatting errors, although Cincinnati was refused.

There’s even some debate about whether the score was justified. Of the three state employees who reviewed the application, two stated that Cincinnati used the correct type font.

So, just to make sure your eyes haven’t glazed over from all the bureaucratic jargon, our city’s Health Department is being denied an HIV prevention grant because one person says the wrong style of type was used on an application. Unbelievable.

In fact, all eight other Health Department jurisdictions throughout Ohio made some errors in their applications.

“Ours was the only one that affected the outcome,” says Rocky Merz, the Cincinnati Health Department’s spokesman. “We’ve been extremely frustrated by their shoddy process.”

The grant money pulled from Cincinnati doesn’t come from Ohio’s budget; it’s federal cash doled out by the state. So, the question remains, did the Cincinnati Health Department mishandle the funds in recent years? A review of data suggests that’s not the case.

According to the ODH’s own performance measures, Cincinnati ranked seventh among the state’s nine Health Department jurisdictions. Cincinnati met 26 percent of the performance categories. Ranking lower were Youngstown (20 percent) and Mansfield (17 percent); neither had their grants pulled, however.

By comparison, here’s how some other cities ranked: Columbus met 32 percent; Dayton met 44 percent; and Cleveland met 59 percent.

Shockingly, ODH’s statewide grant review process had a 33-percent reviewer error rate in adding up the assigned points for each review criteria.

The state’s dubious decision comes just as the local agency is making a dent in a syphilis outbreak that’s plagued Cincinnati since late 2009. The city had 174 cases of syphilis reported that year, compared to just 72 in 2008. The number rose to 257 in 2010, and fell to about 230 for last year (the final figures aren’t yet fully vetted).

That means there’s been a 10-percent drop in cases in the past 12 months. In November just seven new cases were reported — the lowest amount during the past 22 months.

Thankfully, the Cincinnati Health Department’s STD clinics will remain in operation. The program, which offers free testing and clinical services, is funded by $1.2 million from the city.

The strange, indefensible decisions to pull the grants were made by William McHugh, ODH’s prevention division chief, and Ohio Health Commissioner Ted Wymyslo. Both were appointed by Kasich.

If it seems odd that Kasich would pull funding from Cincinnati, governed by officials with which he’s clashed repeatedly, and give it to Hamilton County, governed by friendly GOP politicians but which has no experience in STD prevention, that’s because it is odd to the extreme. Something other than the public good is at play here.

State Reps. Denise Driehaus, Eric Kearney and Alicia Reece are lobbying ODH to reconsider its decision. Also, the local department has appealed to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for a 90-day transition period for the activities affected.

Moreover, the local Health Department has asked City Hall’s Law Department to review its legal options in getting the grants back.

Until it’s all sorted out, we can comfort ourselves with this thought. Remember those examples of Kasich’s hubris from this column’s beginning? Voters overwhelmingly repealed the collective bargaining restrictions in November. And the Obama administration stepped in and restored $10.92 million of the streetcar’s funding, allowing a riverfront segment to be revived.

What can be done can also be undone, particularly if it is egregious, arbitrary and not in the public’s best interests.