When the city of Lubbock made a surprise bid to close its health department last July, psychologist Brian Carr made it his personal crusade to block the move.
Lubbock has the highest percentage of teen pregnancies among cities of similar size in Texas. Its citizens also have nearly twice the number of sexually transmitted diseases. Despite these dismal statistics, Mayor Tom Martin announced that a reduction in federal funding meant the city no longer had the money to fund programs such as the STD/HIV clinic, the immunization clinic, and disease surveillance. Carr set out to prove Martin wrong. “The public health department is no different than the fire or the police department. It’s an essential public function,” Carr says.
After the city made its announcement, Carr and Linda Brice, a nurse at Texas Tech University, formed the Health Coalition of Lubbock to create a grassroots movement to save the city’s health department. Carr, who calls himself a “computer nerd,” created a website and started collecting email addresses. At the next city hearing on the issue, the room was packed with dozens of residents testifying in favor of maintaining the health department. Carr and coalition members noted that the only federal funding for health services being cut was $100,000 for a bioterrorism lab. “The data did not match the city’s argument,” Carr says.
Still, the mayor and city manager were resolved to close the health department, saying the building housing it is “too costly to repair and underutilized.” Despite that contention, the coalition and its supporters won a 90-day reprieve for the department. Carr began videotaping city hearings and posting them on YouTube in the interest of “transparency,” he says.
“I became their worst nightmare,” he says of Lubbock’s city officials. “My children are grown and I have no hobbies. Every night I go home and work on the coalition.”
Using social media, Carr and coalition members gathered 6,000 signatures online in support of keeping the health department, which they submitted at the next City Council hearing. After seeing the packed hearing room and stack of signatures, the mayor voted against closing the health department. “It was the politically savvy decision,” Carr says wryly.
But the battle isn’t over. The mayor has suggested merging the city health department with the county’s, or outsourcing some services. “It’s going to get a whole lot dirtier behind the scenes,” Carr says. Emotions have already gotten heated. During a local radio show, Carr says, the mayor referred to petition signers as left-wing, liberal, MoveOn extremists, who wanted to have every citizen dependent on the government. At a recent city hearing, police patrolled the meeting room.
Carr says he won’t give up until the health department is left intact. In September, the city suffered a Hepatitis A scare after a restaurant worker was diagnosed with the contagious disease. An estimated 7,000 people were exposed at the restaurant. The city was forced to deputize emergency responders and hire nurses to immunize citizens, since many health department employees had already been laid off in preparation for closure. At least 2,500 people received the shots, but several thousand didn’t. Luckily, the disease failed to spread.
“We dodged the bullet on that one,” Carr says. “But we may not be so lucky next time. If we close our health department, we’ll be the largest city in the U.S. without functioning health services, which is another terrible statistic we don’t want for our city.”