NewPublicHealth Q&A: Georges S. Benjamin, M.D.

Jun 22, 2011, 8:06 PM, Posted by


The American Public Health Association’s first-ever midyear meeting, "Implementing Health Reform - A Public Health Approach", will be held June 23 to June 25 in Chicago. Presenters include Judy Monroe, M.D., M.P.H. director of the Office for State, Tribal, Local, and Territorial Support; Pat Quinn, the Governor of Illinois; Susan Dentzer, editor-in-chief of the journal Health Affairs; and Georges S. Benjamin, M.D., executive director of the APHA. (Also be sure to read the APHA Midyear Meeting blog, which will have coverage from Chicago though Saturday.)

NewPublicHealth spoke with Dr. Benjamin about the upcoming meeting.

NewPublicHealth: What made the APHA decide to hold this first-ever midyear meeting?

Dr. Benjamin: Our idea was recognizing that in an environment where everyone has an insurance card, the public health system is going to dramatically change. You’re going to have increases in some services, you’re going to have decreases in some services, and you are going to have major funding changes in the way that we support many of our core public health activities. For example, some community health clinics may see their volume go up, because a fair number of people actually can pay for care through the insurance mechanism, and so your revenues may go up, -but also you may have to invest in new technology and new equipment. And if you are in a state where the health department is a predominant provider of the childhood vaccines, for example, that may now move to the private sector reducing income for the health department. In addition, you may very well have staff that you have to repurpose to other activities, or the revenue stream may not be there for you to support their activities at all. So you have to sit back and figure out how you want to redesign that system, including now maybe if all that clinical work goes to the private sector, do you become more of a regulator and assure than a maximum deliverer of services.

NPH: What are the key topics for the midyear meeting?

Dr. Benjamin: Well, this is a very exciting meeting. We open up with a discussion around how people think about prevention and wellness and how do we communicate about it. We’ll be talking about the politics of health reform, We’ll have several breakout sessions where we talk about the public health workforce in the future, information technology, programs around how do you transform in an environment where we have cracks in our funding. And we are going to talk a great deal about quality performance and improvement. We then we are going to close with a series of discussions on how we advocate for population health and prevention, and then really try to get people motivated to go out and ask themselves: how does the system need to change and how can they work in a proactive way to make America more healthy?

NPH: What is driving you personally as you head into the meeting?

Dr. Benjamin: I’m passionate about not letting happen to the public health community what we let happen to us with managed care. You know, people sat around and saw managed care was coming and kind of didn't pay much attention to it and woke up one morning and there it was. And suddenly we found our patients that we were still taking care of in our clinical setting, but all the reimbursement was going somewhere else. Then we had fiscal crisis. I’m concerned that as they build these data systems and new technology systems, they may build them in a way that supports the clinical practice- but not in a way that supports public health. And I’m concerned that people are going to believe that the public health system does not have to be as robust as it needs to be, even in the era in which everybody has insurance because people are so focused on the medical care side of the discussion, that they don’t recognize that even in the countries that have universal health care, they still have a robust public health system. And we need to make that point loudly and strong. These are some of the kinds of things that keep me up at night.

NPH: What conversations do you think will resonate most strongly with the public health leaders attending the conference?

Dr. Benjamin: We’re going to have a discussion about the legal status of the many of the court challenges. That’s important. And health information technology. I think those attending will really be interested in learning how we’re going to have to readjust our data systems and how you engage the medical care community as part of this process.

NPH: What outcomes are you hoping for among the participants?

Dr. Benjamin: Networking, learning a lot of best practices and sharing information.

NPH: How do you think this midyear meeting will relate to your annual meeting, “Healthy Communities Promote Healthy Minds and Bodies,” to be held in October?

Dr. Benjamin: We believe that prevention is the centerpiece for health reform. If that’s true, and the goal of the health care system and the public health system is to promote health, then we see the midyear meeting as a pre-session to our annual meeting in October.

Read previous Q&As with newsmakers and difference makers in public health.

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