Critical Opportunities in Public Health Law: And The Winners Are…

Oct 17, 2012, 1:00 PM

Dana Singer Dana Singer, Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department

What new laws or changes to existing laws—even simple ones—could dramatically improve public health in communities across the country?

Last week's Public Health Law Conference closed with a “Critical Opportunities” event discussing just that. During the session, seven presenters pitched their ideas for laws to solve critical public health issues. The presenters were each given five minutes to share the background of the issue to be addressed, their idea for the law, evidence that it could work and the feasibility of implementing the change.

Paul Kuehnert, a senior program officer for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and director of its Public Health team, believes enacting new laws could have a positive effect on public health.

“We need to focus on improving the quality and impact of public health across the country—by building the evidence for what works, advancing smarter laws and policies and strengthening public health departments,” he said in his introduction.

Critical Opportunities for Public Health Law Judges' Panel Judges' Panel: Mel Kohn, Marty Fenstersheib, and Charity Scott

The pitches were made to a panel comprised of Mel Kohn, public health director and state health officer for Oregon; Marty Fenstersheib, health officer for Santa Clara County, California; and Charity Scott, Professor of Law and Director for the Center for Health, Law and Society at Georgia State University. Attendees were encouraged to vote on their favorite.

While they were all hits, the public health law opportunity with the most votes was “Mountain Dew Mouth: Failure to Warn and Imposition of Restrictions on Sale,” presented by Dana Singer of the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department. According to the American Dental Association, 65 percent of West Virginia's children ages three through seven suffer from tooth decay—and near-constant sipping of Mountain Dew plays a role. By enacting basic point-of-sale safeguards—a minimum age requirement, limits on bottle sizes, warning signs, requiring licenses and limiting how SNAP benefits can be used—communities could help turn around this dramatic situation.

The other presentations:

  • Using the Law to Improve Access to Primary Care — Jamie Ware, National Nursing Centers Consortium: Approximately 53 million Americans are uninsured and 56 million lack access to primary care due to physician shortages. By changing state laws to improve access to expand the role of Nurse Practitioners and not allowing insurers to discriminate between providers, more people can have access to the medical care they need.
  • Critical Congenital Heart Defects and Pulse Oximetry — Chris Walker, Network for Public Health Law: Nearly one-quarter of deaths due to birth defects in infants are the result of congenital heart defects. By making the low-cost, non-invasive screening procedure called pulse oximetry mandatory, physicians can identify these defects early and save lives.
  • Paid Sick Leave Laws — Andy Baker-White, Network for Public Health Law: As many as 20 percent of Americans get the seasonal flu, yet paid sick leave is not mandatory. One survey found that among those employees who don’t have paid sick leave, 68 percent went to work with a contagious illness. By making it mandatory, communities can improve individual health as well as public health, while also improving business productivity.
  • Health Reform and the Preservation of Confidential Health Care for Young Adults — Ryan Cramer and Lauren Slive, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: A major issue facing the health of young adults is the unintentional lack of confidentiality in the provision of sensitive health services, when they remain on their parents’ health insurance plans. Parents often receive an “explanation of benefits” detailing the health services obtained by even adult children on the same insurance plan. Young adults may forgo sensitive services such as STD screening and treatment, family planning services and mental health treatment in fear that their parents will find out. Strengthening the HIPAA Privacy Rule would help ensure that confidentiality be maintained for young adult patients—increasing the likelihood they will get treatment.
  • Legal Strategies to Reduce Prescription Drug Overdoses — Y. Tony Yang, George Mason University: Prescription drug overdose caused approximately 15,000 deaths in 2008 and nearly half a million emergency room visits in 2009. And prescription drug misuse, abuse and fraud cost private health insurers almost $25 billion a year. Prescription drug monitoring programs would enable statewide tracking of controlled substances, helping make sure the drugs were used legally and saving insurers millions in unnecessary costs.
  • The Model Aquatic Code – Jasen Kunz, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Americans make more than 300 million trips a year to pools and other places to swim, yet a recent study found 12 percent of public pools inspected were closed for serious violations. The dangers include waterborne diseases and even drowning. The Model Aquatic Health Code would utilized the latest scientific evidence (constantly being updated) to reduce the risk of diseases and deaths related to public swimming facilities.

>>Read more of our coverage from the Public Health Law Conference.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.