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Volunteer Experts on the Chopping Block at Legislature

June 5, 2012 by Rose Hoban in Featured, Public Health

A proposed law would eliminate many boards and commissions that use the knowledge of many experts located in the state, many of whom work for free.

Child Fatality numbers from the CFTF

Child fatality numbers from 1992-2008, Data courtesy CFTF

By Kelsey Tsipis

Tuesday afternoon the North Carolina General Assembly will vote on a bill that seeks to eliminate or downsize dozens of advisory boards across the state, including the Child Fatality Task Force, the Governor’s Advisory Council on Aging and the Justus-Warren Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention Task Force.

In total, the proposal would eliminate 51 boards and commissions and downsize 40 more, cutting off the expertise of 1,246 professionals from around the state, at a savings of $959,000.

The majority of board members donate their time. Several members interviewed believe these task forces have been vital in providing expert input on important topics to educate policy makers. The loss of such boards and commission would be a devastating blow to citizens and policy makers in North Carolina, they say.

See update June 6

Karen McLeod, Co-Chair of the Child Fatality Task Force, said prior to the task force’s inauguration in 1990 under Governor Jim Martin, North Carolina had the highest infant mortality rate in the nation. Today, North Carolina has seen a 46 percent reduction in child deaths. And North Carolina now ranks 41st in the nation in infant mortality rates.

Click for an interactive graph charting boards and commissions cuts

“This task force has been integral in drawing together statewide experts that have contributed an enormous amount of hours for free,” said McLeod.

The CFTF is a legislative study commission making recommendations to the General Assembly and Governor for their consideration on issues relating to infant mortality. The recommendations are based on data, research, and evidence-based practice that reflect hundreds of hours of volunteer input from doctors, nurses and professors.

“It is seen as a successful model on how you can coordinate this kind of statewide action across these systems and practices and how you can coordinate this kind of drop of 46 percent in 20 years,” said McLeod.

The CFTF has only one paid salary employee who makes $61,000 per year. The rest of the commission is co-chaired by 35 volunteers. If the bill passes in the House of Representatives Tuesday, the CFTF could be on its way to being eliminated entirely.

Not just about kids

The Child Fatality Task force is just one of the many task forces and commissions facing elimination.

The Justus-Warren Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention Task Force is also looking at a 100 percent cut, from 27 volunteer board members to zero if passed Tuesday.

Members of the Justus-Warren Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention Task Force say the panel has also been effective in its 17 years of existence, helping to reduce heart disease and stroke from the number one and two leading causes of death in North Carolina, to number four.

“North Carolina is in the stroke belt, so we really need to focus our medical and public policies on reducing the burden of stroke disease on the state,” said Peg O’Connell, a member of the task force. O’Connell’s last husband, former Insurance Commissioner Jim Long, died in 2009 as the result of a stroke.

maps show the changing number of people over 65 in each county.

Map progression shows the changing number of people over 65 in each county.

Another board up for elimination is the Governor’s Council on Aging. The council was founded in 1973 by the General Assembly to bring together stakeholders in the elderly population. None of the 33 members up for elimination are paid, although the council receives a $4,000 appropriation from the state to reimburse travel expenses.

Advocates for the elderly said the elimination of the council is particularly devastating as the number of elderly people in North Carolina grows.

“It would be a real loss not having a voice in planning and identifying the issues of concern and there would be no way to getting those issues to policy makers,” said Pat Capehart Brown, a member of the council since 2001. “Especially, in a time when we have growing number.”

Other boards facing elimination include the North Carolina Board of Correction, North Carolina Sustainable Local Food Advisory Council, North Carolina Center for Nursing, North Carolina Community Development Council, North Carolina Brain Injury Advisory Council, North Carolina Agriculture and Forestry Awareness Study Commission and the Mine Safety and Health Advisory Council.

“A number of boards and commissions on the list for elimination that have been tremendously effective” said O’Connell. “Let be reasonable before we eliminate all these citizen voices from having to shape public policy.”

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