Photo by Ed Markey

Photo by Ed Markey

Each year APHA bestows its Distinguished Public Health Legislator of the Year Award on one local, state or federal lawmaker who has demonstrated leadership in protecting public health programs and funding. This year’s award winner, who will be honored next week at the 143rd Annual Meeting and Exposition in Chicago, is U.S. Senator Ed Markey, D-Mass.

Markey spoke to Public Health Newswire about what the award, and public health, means to him, along with his thoughts on climate change, opioid overdose and why the Affordable Care Act represents “one of the proudest” moments of his career.

Q: Congratulations on the award, Senator Markey. You’ve been a champion on important public health issues for nearly 40 years. What does public health mean to you, and how can legislators like you help us create the healthiest nation in one generation?

A: Thank you very much. I am deeply honored to receive this award. Public health to me is all inclusive — it means everyone. Not only should we focus on health care providers and hospitals, but we should also be concerned about access to public parks, healthy foods and employee wellness programs. When it comes to public health we have made some significant progress in recent years. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, millions more people have health insurance now than ever before. Life expectancy has grown. Cutting-edge research is being conducted across the country to continue our exciting progress in both treatment and prevention procedures. And the Obama administration has turned the spotlight on nutrition and exercise education and programs, especially targeted at children.

All of these factors contribute to creating a healthier nation.

Q: Last year you introduced legislation to strengthen public health’s response to climate change. How does climate change threaten the health of people and the planet, and how can we strengthen the nation’s public health system to respond?

A: The Climate Change Health Protection and Promotion Act that I introduced last year calls on the Department of Health and Human Services to produce and implement a plan that prepares health professionals for the impact of climate change on public health in the United States, as well as in other nations around the world. It also instructs HHS to coordinate with the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine when responding to the impact of climate change on public health.

Climate change unquestionably threatens the health of everyone who lives on planet Earth. Severe weather induced by climate change has already had serious consequences here in the United States. This year California experienced crippling droughts and uncontrollable wildfires, dangerous occurrences on their own that also pose a threat to all Americans by damaging our nation’s agricultural products. Floods in South Carolina created serious infrastructure problems and expanded the habitat for mosquitoes and the many transmittable diseases they carry. Vaccines and immunizations are as important to preventing the spread of diseases today as they have ever been, yet for some reason it has become a political debate whether to require vaccinations for school-age children.

Climate change is real, the dramatic health risks that accompany climate change are real, and we need to do more as a country to strengthen our public health system to respond to these current and future threats.

Q: In the last 15 years opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. have nearly quadrupled and devastated families and communities, including in your home state of Massachusetts. How critical is it that we address this problem and what can we do about it?

A: Right now, the opioid epidemic is the greatest public health threat facing Massachusetts. Earlier this year, I introduced legislation on substance abuse that specifically mandates prescriber education, strengthens prescription drug monitoring programs, and expands access to treatment. Governor Charlie Baker introduced legislation in Massachusetts that parallels many parts of my bills.

Substance abuse is neither a partisan issue nor one that affects only a single state. Earlier this year, I was joined by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in writing to HHS, asking it to prioritize research on substance abuse across the country. In response the Surgeon General recently announced that his office will issue the first-ever Surgeon General’s Report on substance use, addiction and health. This report will be an important building block as we move forward in curbing substance abuse not only in Massachusetts, but also across the country.

Q: We continue to see members of Congress attempt to repeal the Prevention and Public Health Fund, the federal government’s first-ever mandatory funding stream dedicated toward improving the public’s health. Why do you support the Prevention Fund?

A: My vote for the Affordable Care Act was one of the proudest I have cast in my career, and the Prevention and Public Health Fund is an instrumental part of this law. Our health care spending had grown to unsustainable rates. The Affordable Care Act is helping to reverse this trend and curb spending by focusing on prevention efforts. Preventing disease reduces the need for expensive diagnostic tests and medical procedures.

I support the Prevention Fund because it focuses research and prevention efforts on the most urgent health problems facing our country, from Alzheimer’s disease and immunizations to cancers and heart disease. The Prevention Fund is an essential way to improve the overall health of our country while also reducing the costs of the health care system as a whole.