Georges Benjamin

APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin, MD.

On behalf of APHA, happy new year! In 2014, we re-learned five important public health lessons to take with us into the future, including the need for bolstered preparedness for domestic and international health threats, our nation’s need for more public health funding, how health insurance coverage saves lives and reduces disease incidence, how public health measures must be grounded in science and the ever-growing need for public health professionals to communicate with Americans effectively.

Here are 10 things we should do this year to make the U.S. a healthier nation in 2015:

1. Make a stronger case for public health investments

It’s up to us to create a stronger understanding among all Americans that investments in health and social programs not only strengthen our health, but improve our economic well-being and enhance our economic competitiveness. In public health, we know that every $1 devoted per person to community-based public health activities returns $5.60 in benefits.

We can and must advocate for greater investments. While we are pleased that the year-end omnibus provided modest funding increases over fiscal year 2014 levels for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Health Resources and Services Administration, more investments are needed. This must be a high priority for 2015.

2. Promote science as a basis for sound policymaking

Better health starts with a firm understanding of the evidence that supports our efforts to improve our health. This includes ensuring a firm science base, and using the results of cutting-edge research to guide best practices. Policy can be an effective health improvement tool but only if it is guided by the best science coupled with the pragmatic engagement of policymakers to properly implement it.

3. Engage the public

A healthy community is a goal deeply rooted in individual and community values. Achieving it requires active engagement through education, collaboration and coalition building and collective action that achieves positive change. We must engage with our communities to promote prevention and wellness as a component of any healthy communities’ effort. A healthy community is a grassroots effort.

4. Educate policymakers at federal, state and local levels

Policymakers have an essential role in improving the health security of the population. Helping them achieve this requires that they use all of the tools they have to promote the health and well-being of their constituents. Strong leadership followed by informed legislative action, policymaking and resource allocation are the keys to good government. We need to work with our elected and nonelected officials nationwide in ways that ensure they promote healthy policies and adequate funding for health and social programs.

At the federal level, the opportunity to fully engage our new Congress begins and we must maintain our focus on our goals. The strategies we use may change and new partnerships are required, but the focus on the health of the public remains the same. Get to know your elected leaders, share your understanding of the needs of the communities they represent and work with them to find ways to meet those needs.

APHA can help in many ways. We have materials to keep you up to date as Congress addresses issues that are critical to the publics’ health throughout the year. One example is APHA’s Public Health ACTion, or PHACT campaign, which joins APHA members, our Affiliates and other advocates in educating members of Congress on important public health issues that help build and maintain healthy communities. During the Fourth of July and August congressional recesses, APHA encourages the public health community to reach out to their congressional leaders while they are in their home districts to express support for timely public health issues. In 2014, the focus was on protecting critical funding for public health agencies and the Prevention and Public Health Fund, and in support of passing comprehensive legislation to reduce gun violence.

5. Get out in the media to support public health in your community

The media is an important force in advocating for change. Policymakers read the news like everyone else. New stories are one tool we can use to amplify our voice and improve our impact.

There are many ways to do this. Write to your local newspapers with letters to the editor or opposite-editorials, or op-eds, to make public health a talking point in your community. Using sample letters from APHA’s PHACT campaign as a template, our networks have earned media coverage from local and even state publications.

Social media is another potent tool that we can use to elevate public health priorities in real time. During National Public Health Week, APHA hosted a Twitter chat that made public health a national trending topic.  The more we can shape the conversation, the more success we’ll have in influencing health policies.

6. Collaborate with others outside our field

Collaboration is the centerpiece of a health-in-all-policies framework. We should continue to work with our traditional partners to advance our work.  We can, however, maximize our success by working and collaborating with “non-traditional” partners such as engineers, city planners, transportation officials, private sector businesses, community organizations and others. Such collaborations should work to make healthy communities as well as better individual health an essential business goal.

7. Promote the next phase in health reform

The Affordable Care Act has already begun to improve the health security of the American people. It is also transforming the U.S. health system in many positive ways. Building the public health system of the future is the next phase of health reform and, I believe, the most impactful. We have a vision of the future that promotes being the healthiest nation in one generation. We’ll need a robust public health system to achieve that goal.  It must be properly designed and resourced and we will need to fight this year to make that happen.

8. Protect the gains we have made

We made tremendous progress to improve public health in 2014, including:

  • protecting the environment, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s announcement of the Clean Power Plan and its proposal to reduce ozone pollution;
  • reducing the number of uninsured, the ACA has  lowered the number of uninsured Americans to its lowest level since the 1990s;
  • implementing public health programs, with the latest omnibus spending bill fully allocating the $1 billion available from the ACA’s Prevention and Public Health Fund to support local, state and federal programs that fight obesity, curb tobacco use, improve access to preventive care services and respond to public health threats and outbreaks; and
  • blocking efforts to roll back school nutrition standards.

We must redouble our efforts to build off these public health victories and be prepared for the onslaught of new attacks on environmental protections, health insurance coverage and public health funding.

9. Reauthorize funding

Several important health programs are up for reauthorization this year to include the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the federal transportation program and child nutrition programs. These plus the fiscal year 2016 annual health appropriations will be decided this year. The public health community will need to play a central role in defining and fighting for the appropriate levels of resources.

10. Support public health preparedness

Prevention doesn’t happen without a sustainable system that can address serious public health threats now and in the future. APHA’s mission is to create the healthiest nation in one generation, and the 2014 National Health Security Preparedness Index shows room for growth in environmental and occupational health, health care delivery and community planning and engagement.

APHA supports preparedness in many ways, including our Get Ready campaign to help Americans prepare themselves, their families and their communities for serious preventable health threats like Ebola, climate-related emergencies, outbreaks of influenza and emerging and reemerging infectious diseases, and terrorism. Get the facts on how we can create a more prepared, healthier America.