Strengthening and Enforcing Public Health Law

Jul 21, 2011, 7:33 PM, Posted by

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Public health agencies across the country are looking increasingly to the law as a tool to help achieve their missions in a time of limited resources. On Thursday, Matthew Penn, director of the Public Health Law Program at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), spoke as part of a panel of attorneys about new resources to that local health departments and partners in health care and other fields can use to help advance, strengthen and enforce laws to protect and improve the health of people in the communities they serve. Below are a few highlights from the discussion:

  • On enforcement: “Public health is not law enforcement. Usually in practice it is about the department building professional relationships with the community, and education and persuasion.” One way to add teeth to a law, he said, is by linking substantive requirements to enforcement mechanisms, as has been done in the case of the requirements around the reporting of health care associated infections to local health departments. “Then you also get to, ‘If you fail to report, you will use your license to operate,’ he said. “If have problems with a particular enforcement standard, you have to look at the penalty. If it’s not going to work, you might need to tweak a law to have more meaningful enforcement.”
  • On emergency preparedness, health care coalitions, and the ‘failure to plan’: “Emergencies are opportunities to share resources in tight budgetary times. Failure to plan can have devastating political fallout for not only the entities that failed, but a ripple effect. That needs to be kept in mind as planning entities are formed."
  • On strategic partnerships and the value of contracts: “The attorney perspective is that you either create an agreement on the front end, or you will need to have it later. The value of a well-written contract is on the front end – you use it as part of the planning process and the organization of resources. You can have friends, but if you go into business with them, you need a contract. Just get it down on paper, and then everyone knows what their responsibilities are.”

For the latest legal and policy resources from the CDC, click here.

For related resources on these topics, visit Public Health Law Research program.

>> NACCHO's public health law resources

>> Read full NACCHO 2011 coverage here

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