Faces of Public Health: Donna Levin, Network for Public Health Law

Apr 25, 2014, 12:53 PM


The Network for Public Health Law recently named Donna Levin, formerly the general counsel at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, as its new National Director.

The Network provides assistance and resources to public health lawyers and officials on legal issues related to public health, including health reform, emergency preparedness, drug overdose prevention, health information privacy and food safety. More than 3,500 public health practitioners, attorneys, researchers, policy makers and others have joined the Network since it was formed in 2010 as a national initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).

“We are delighted that Ms. Levin, an experienced leader in public health law, will be joining a stellar Network team,” said Michelle Larkin, JD, assistant vice president for RWJF. “Laws and policies that help people lead healthier lives are among the cornerstones for building a culture of health. Through Ms. Levin’s leadership, we look forward to continued growth in the Network—a strategic resource for state and local public health officials.”

NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Levin about her new position with the Network.

NewPublicHealth: How does your previous work as the general counsel for a state health department help inform your goals for the Network for Public Health Law?

Donna Levin: During my decades at the Massachusetts Department of Health I saw the responsibility of the state health department grow exponentially. We were trusted by the legislature and given many new initiatives. So public health grew and grew and public health law has grown alongside it. So what informs my view is that the range of issues is so incredibly broad. And so I really know firsthand how the availability of technical assistance from the Network is so valuable both to lawyers working in the field and to practitioners.

My key goal is to work with the staff at the Network and with all our stakeholders to grow this resource. I want to grow it; I want to tailor it to the needs of the lawyers and practitioners. And in addition to the technical assistance, I think this means recognizing that some areas of public health practice, as they evolve, may be in need of a legal framework that helps push the initiative forward. I think the Network will be working on some initiatives where all the regions as well as the coordinating center are working toward one goal. One of those initiatives is children’s oral health.

My experience with the state health department makes me think that I want the Network to be highly visible and easily accessible to those who are in need of the services, and I really want to leverage the synergy and activity of providing this assistance across the country. We bring public health law and practice professionals together. That’s part of the joy we found in working in a state health department—just rolling up your sleeves and working side by side with public health practitioners.

NPH: Do you think health departments are doing all they can to use laws in the public health sector?

Levin: I think health departments vary in the amount of legal resources available to them. I think when resources aren’t sufficient departments are going to tend to be more reactive rather than proactive, so I think information about the use of law as a tool and what other states have done through tailored regulation and statutory law is critical. And I think the same kind of guidance that we want to provide through technical assistance and initiatives could be provided to legislatures both on a state by state basis and through regional and national groups as well.

Even in Massachusetts, which is very proactive in terms of using law to advance public health improvements, the state department of public health would often be contacted by the legislature’s Public Health Committee, for example, about what they needed to learn about certain issues and what were the issues in terms of parameters and authority. So we would often find ourselves in a position of going up to the legislature with our legislative folks to educate them. It’s great to get in there early and have a legislature that is as informed as possible on what you’re trying to do.

NPH: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s key goal for the nation is to help promote a culture of health. How does law help to promote that?

Levin: I think, first of all, that promoting a culture of health is a wonderful vision, and looking at health extending to how we work and live and wellbeing and staying healthy is valued by the entire society. Everyone in the field of public health—from practitioners to lawyers—need to know that public health involves so much more than the delivery of health care per se, including the social determinants of health such as socioeconomic status, education and social-support networks. It’s more than the sum of the individual’s specific characteristics.

I have always thought of law as a determinant of health, as well. Law is an extremely powerful tool that can further the culture of health in many ways. We can use law to shape the way communities are built; the way food is processed and labeled; protections afforded in the workplace against injury—there’s a whole scaffolding of statutory and regulatory authority. So use law to protect the environment and to ensure the safety of drugs we use. Law also governs, in many respects, the way health care is delivered and made accessible, and it also provides structure and authority to public health authorities that are necessary to protect public health in the face of epidemics and other emergency situations.

I have seen the power of law to protect the public's health and it’s just absolutely a core component in the promotion of a culture of health. There’s just no doubt about it in my mind.

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