Health on the Hill 2018: Connecting Public Health Leaders to Policymakers

As part of continued efforts to inform policymakers of the critical role that local health departments play in keeping our communities healthy and safe, NACCHO hosted Health on the Hill in Washington, DC.

On February 28, more than 45 public health officials, state association leaders, and Big Cities Health Coalition members from across the nation convened in Capitol Hill to meet with nearly 100 Members of Congress. While each participant had different priorities to discuss with their elected officials, they all shared a common goal to provide insight into the state of public health in their communities and the unique challenges they face in creating and improving community health and well-being.

“As a board member of NACCHO and a Big Cities Health Coalition representative, I was happy to meet with Nevada’s Congress members and their staff,” said Joseph P. Iser, MD, DrPH, MSc, Chief Health Officer at Southern Nevada Health District. “We discussed issues vital to local health authorities, but particularly focused on issues dear to the Southern Nevada Health District, including opiates, sexually transmitted infections, and violence—with violence and violence prevention among the most important for a city that recently had the largest mass shooting in modern American history.”

Denisha Porter, MPH, RS, REHS, HHS, Director of Health Promotion and Worksite Wellness at Cincinnati Health Department, and Muriel DeLaVergne-Brown, RN, MPH, Health and Human Services Director of the Crook County Health Department (OR), echoed Iser’s sentiments and shared that spending time on ‘The Hill’ provides the ability to meet with legislators that listen and make a difference for their counties programs.

“Hill Day was an exciting experience for me,” said Porter. “I was able to connect with our Members of Congress to better understand what some of their top priorities were, as well as gain insight into their most pressing public health concerns. In addition, we had dialogue about the scope of community engagement on the local level.”

Creating Change through Advocacy

Local Health Officials from Texas

In the time since NACCHO and its members joined together to give a voice to local public health priorities, we have celebrated two important legislative moments: the eighth anniversary of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the passage of the FY2018 Consolidated Appropriations Act, an omnibus spending bill – neither of which would have been possible without advocacy.

Since its enactment, the ACA has helped orient the healthcare system toward prevention rather than just treatment, creating a paradigm shift that has produced essential support for local health departments and community-based public health activities across the country. Not only do millions of Americans – including seniors, low-income families, people with disabilities, and children – now have affordable health coverage, but the creation of the Prevention and Public Health Fund (PPHF) has created a critical funding stream for federal, state, and local public health programs. In particular, the PPHF supports the following programs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • 317 Immunization Program
  • Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity Grants
  • Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program
  • Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention, and Diabetes Prevention
  • Preventive Health and Health Services Block Grant

The FY2018 Consolidated Appropriations Act, passed on March 23, allocates $800 million to key public health programs through PPHF and provides additional support to the CDC through increases of $350 million to combat the opioid crisis, $18 million for childhood lead poisoning, and $10 million for public health emergency preparedness.

With the CDC and the PPHF serving as vital sources of funding for local health department programs, this bill is a huge win for public health. “As a local health authority, it is so important that we help our congressional leaders understand what we do at the front lines of public health, especially at this critical time when our field seems to be vulnerable to funding cuts,” said Philip Huang, Medical Director and Health Authority at Austin Public Health in Texas.

And although NACCHO’s Hill Day was not a singular catalyst for either of these events, it is a microcosm of the power of advocacy as a tool for demanding change and creating support for the important work of the field. “The legislators and staff really appreciate hearing our stories, and it is great to make those personal connections so we can continue to be a resource for them in the future,” Huang noted.

Sustaining Our Momentum

In order to protect funding and programming, and continue advancing the field, public health needs NACCHO’s local leaders to continue sharing their stories and experiences. For example, in late March, Cabell-Huntington Health Department’s Physician Director, Michael Kilkenny, MD, came to Washington, D.C. from West Virginia to testify at a congressional hearing on behalf of NACCHO in support of legislation that will help mitigate the infectious disease consequences of the nation’s opioid epidemic.

While such high-profile opportunities are not always the norm, there is much progress to be made right in our members’ home jurisdictions. In fact, some of NACCHO’s Health on the Hill participants have already scheduled meetings with their elected officials’ staff. “I was so energized by our conversations that I set up time to meet with Senator Heller’s (R-NV) staff located in Las Vegas,” said Iser. “These meetings, whether in DC or in the local jurisdiction, are vitally important to engage in the education and give-and-take of the political process.”

“It’s my hope that the legislators we connected with will influence their counterparts to understand the importance of continued support for CDC and other critical health initiatives,” added Sandra Ford, MD, MBA, FAAP, District Health Director and CEO of District 3, Unit 5 DeKalb County Board of Health in Georgia.

NACCHO is proud to continue bridging the gap between local public health leaders and their elected officials. We encourage our members to get engaged, subscribe to News from Washington for the latest legislative updates, and use NACCHO’s Legislative Action Center to make their voice heard and take action to urge Members of Congress to protect the PPHF. Also, be sure to tune in to the NACCHO Podcast Series, a biweekly podcast hosted by NACCHO Government Affairs team members Ian Goldstein and Eli Briggs. Each episode gives the latest on public health policy moving through Washington, DC, followed by an interview with a local health official discussing emerging issues in their community.

For more information on how to advocate for local public health, contact Eli Briggs, Senior Director of Government Affairs at NACCHO.

About Kim Rodgers

Kim Rodgers serves as a Communications Specialist at NACCHO. Her work includes promoting local health departments' best practices, as well as partner tools and resources, in infectious disease and preparedness through NACCHO's communications channels, storytelling, and outreach to various audiences.

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