Health services suffer in Charles Co. MARYLAND SPENDING CUTS

September 06, 1992|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Staff Writer

LA PLATA -- When times were good, Charles County health officer Marilyn Radke kept both an occupational therapist and a physical therapist on her staff.

One of their jobs was to care for the paraplegics and quadriplegics who were brought to the county health office here, folks too poor to afford their own health insurance but who had just enough income not to qualify for Medicaid.

The therapists tried to coax them along to minimal self-sufficiency, teaching them how to feed or dress themselves, to use equipment that increased their mobility, or otherwise to cope with their disabilities.

But when the budget cuts of the past two years trickled down to Charles County, the two therapists became luxuries the county Health Department could no longer afford. Their jobs were eliminated, and with them went the care they gave their patients.

"I don't know where those folks are getting help now," a troubled Dr. Radke says now.

It is but one example of how one county and its residents have been hit by broad reductions in state aid. The changes are subtle and hard for most residents to see -- unless, of course, they are the ones hurt.

When the state budget is cut, county health departments often get hit three ways -- through loss of money allocated based on their caseload, through cuts in general aid programs to all counties, and through reductions to state health department programs that are passed through.

In Charles County, the cuts have claimed nearly one-sixth of the Health Department staff of 150, including sanitarians who inspected restaurants and nurses who made in-home visits to persons suffering from chronic illnesses.

School nurses, who screened students for vision, hearing or other medical problems, were eliminated.

Well-baby clinics, designed to ensure that poor children receive adequate nutrition and are developing normally, were stopped. Waiting lists for prenatal clinics have grown.

But health services are only one way Charles County is feeling the pinch:

* Senior citizens who flock by the hundreds to play bingo or bridge, turn pottery, sew quilts or make friends at a county activities center can no longer go there on Fridays. The county cannot afford the staff to keep it open five days a week.

John Cappello, a 71-year-old Air Force retiree and avid bridge player from Waldorf, says he and others simply find something else to do on Fridays now.

But he says some regulars particularly miss the free lunch they used to get on Fridays.

* A small library used by people from the Indian Head area was closed, its books jammed into a nearby storefront library. The move leaves little room for readers.

Plans for a replacement library were shelved.

And the regional library that serves Charles, St. Mary's and Calvert counties has lost so many staff members that chief librarian Katharine Hurrey says patrons will have to get used to waiting longer for books and other information.

* Plans to save from possible development a wooded, 100-acre tract that juts its sandy beaches into the Wicomico River, just off the Potomac, have been shelved.

The property, valuable now but probably invaluable to future generations, became unaffordable after the state siphoned off almost all of its parkland acquisition money to balance the operating budget.

* A new business and technology center that was to anchor the Charles County Community College's position as a hub for business training and information exchange has been put on hold, again awaiting state money.

It is symbolic of monetary constraints that are stunting the school's growth.

"I've spent 31 years building the fabric of an institution of high quality, and what is happening is every thread of that fabric is beginning to weaken," said college President John M. Sine, who can see from his office window the vacant lot where the new business and technology center is supposed to be.

Dr. Sine says the school is trying to keep its full range of programs afloat as long as possible, but basic maintenance, equipment purchases and other essential activities are suffering.

"There's no time to invest in devising new programs," said J. Elaine Ryan, the college's executive vice president. "There's far less energy going into the future. We're spending all of our time just trying to stay alive."

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