Public health, as a profession and system to improve population health, continues to fall short in the United States.
Since the start of the Great Recession, nearly a quarter of all employees working for local health jurisdictions have been downsized or laid off because of funding cuts to already meager budgets. The National Association of County and City Health Officials pegs the attrition at nearly 44,000 workers–a fact reported on this blog before.
Today, most Americans have little idea what public health does, why it matters, and why its funding is critical to improving health outcomes at the population level. For that matter, half of all Americans cannot even identify what the core elements of health insurance plans are.
From its start as a profession in the United States in the early 1900s, public health was deemed to have a political-activist function. In fact, noted public health pioneer C.E.A. Winslow, Yale’s first chair of public health, promoted universal medical care in the 1920s as a principle of sound public health policy, backed later by other public health practitioners in the next two decades who unsuccessfully called for a form of universal health care.
Winslow’s often-quoted definition of public health called for the “development of the social machinery which will insure to every individual in the community a standard of living adequate for the maintenance of health.” Such efforts were overt and unashamed calls for political action and advocacy, the likes of which are mostly not heard today from the profession.
10 essential public health services: a recipe for political impotence?
Since 1994, the U.S. Centers of Disease Control has pushed the “10 essential public health services” model as the gold standard for defining public health’s realm of practice. As far back as 1999, the CDC claimed, “The overall goal for public health’s infrastructure is to have every health department fully prepared with capacity to fulfill the Ten Essential Public Health Services and every community better protected by an efficacious public health system.”
This model has rippled outward to every public health agency, every school of public health, and all professionals in the field as the benchmark to measure quality and effectiveness. Logic models have been developed to see how well health departments were doing according to this standard. Anyone who works in the field is told that these services define who we are and what we do.
All the while, public health budgets have been slashed nationally, and at the state and local level, workers have fled or were pushed out of the profession. Still the field of public health continues to push its competent but still toothless model for what is considered a best practice—the 10 essential services.
While evidence-based and certainly valid, this 10-step model is also a self-defeating set of quasi-religious commandments that fails to address the harsh political realities related to developing legislation and orchestrating fights over budget appropriations. It also fails to call for advocacy and political activity, which can and have pushed public health efforts far greater than these prescribed activities.
Politics, money, and real power
For-profit entities working in the health sector thrive because advocacy and political engagement are fundamental to their business models and bottom lines, unlike the model of inefficacy promoted for the public health profession.
For instance, pharmaceutical powerhouse Pfizer unabashedly states, “We believe that public policy engagement is an important and appropriate role for companies in open societies, when conducted in a legal and transparent manner. … The Pfizer Political Action Committee makes contributions to candidates for federal office, and fully discloses its contributions on a regular basis to the Federal Election Commission.”
While for-profit health interests march forward, with ever more dollars and clout, public health continues to retreat. The President’s budget request in 2014 for the CDC, the agency charged with protecting America’s health, is a measly $6.6 billion (for its program level expenditures)—a drop of $270 million over 2012.
This dip likely reflects pushback by GOP lawmakers in the current Congress, who view CDC’s public health activities as synonymous with overt advocacy. Language in funding measures, in the current session of Congress, has attempted to limit federal dollars for grassroots efforts by public health practitioners to lobby on behalf of specific legislation, particularly on efforts to address chronic disease and obesity.
Generally, public health advocacy is not lobbying, which is prohibited when it involves federal or earmarked funds. Exceptions include study or research and discussions of broad social problems.
So it is not surprising that government-funded public health bodies have been generally shy, and in the case of firearms legislation, nearly totally muzzled, from discussing firearms deaths since congressional language banned funding of firearms research starting in 1996. (In my opinion there has been a failure of leadership in public health when such leadership was needed on the issue of firearms violence, which is a legitimate public health concern.)
But should bans on using public funds for lobbying mute the profession from pushing for advocacy approaches and political engagement?
Daniel Callahan and Bruce Jennings’ 2002 article in the American Journal of Public Health examined the ethics of public health advocacy. They noted, “Politics is a necessary component of public health, moreover, precisely in order to achieve public health policies and practices consistent with American traditions and values. Politics is the messy arena in which ultimate questions of the public good are worked out.”
Public health’s failures in the political mosh pit
A perfect example of what happens when public health was not fighting tooth and nail was President Obama’s Affordable Care Act of 2009, which ultimately squashed efforts for a single payer system—the long-held dream of public health advocates from the 20th century—and advanced a health insurance industry, market-based model for “health care” reform.
All told, advocacy groups in 2009 spent $3.47 billion for D.C.-based lobbyists to parse out issues, according to left-leaning Center for Responsive Politics. Not surprisingly, the lion’s share of that spending went to fight the health reform battle. Businesses and organizations that lobbied on “health reform” spent more than $1.2 billion on their overall advocacy efforts.
For its part, the American Public Health Association (APHA) spent less than $500,000 annually on lobbying at last count in 2013. (See spending chart for lobbying expenditures by APHA from 1998 to 2013.)
The good news is that this marked a jump of more than 300 percent from what APHA spent in 2012. It would appear that some in the field are waking up to the realities of fighting for public health where the most meaningful impacts can be achieved – through policy and legislation.
By comparison, just one big pharma company, Pfizer, spent more than $800,000 in the first six months of 2013, from local to congressional candidates and political parties nationwide (see chart above).
What is most discouraging is that future leaders entering the profession continue to be shortchanged by graduate programs that do not know how to prepare practitioners to win in the bruising political environment known as “upstream.” This is my general assessment of not just my graduate MPH program, but of the field that I still see through its obsessive and yet parochial obsession with the 10 essential public health services.
A very smart resource guide developed by the California Endowment sharply noted: “… many public health faculty do not possess the skills or experience to teach advocacy effectively. Faculty surveys show, for example, that despite advocacy for health being recognized as an ethical responsibility and required competency of health educators, many health education faculty do not see themselves as competent for teaching advocacy and lack instructional materials to do so. Degree-granting programs in public health need to provide systematic training in social advocacy. In the absence of formal training in social change, public health graduates must learn this information and develop these skills on a catch-as-catch-can basis. Working in this way means that some will be less effective than they otherwise could be in advancing the health of the public.”