Public Health Law Conference 2012: Practical Approaches to Critical Challenges

Oct 2, 2012, 1:58 PM

The Network for Public Health Law will sponsor the 2012 Public Health Law Conference, with the theme “Practical Approaches to Critical Challenges,” from October 10 through 12, 2012, in Atlanta. Follow NewPublicHealth during the conference for interviews and session updates. Goals of the conference include:

  • Examining practical legal approaches to address priority public health issues
  • Learning about helpful public health law resources and evidence-based research
  • Discussing public health legal questions and answers
  • Building partnerships to accomplish public health objectives and foster innovation

 According to the Network, target audiences for the conference include attorneys, local, state, tribal and federal public health officials and practitioners, policy-makers, advocates and academics and researchers.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Dan Stier, director of the Network for Public Health Law about the Network’s accomplishments since its founding two years ago, and upcoming goals.

>>BONUS: Read our earlier Q&A with Dan Stier, offering a sneak preview of what's to come at the 2012 Public Health Law Conference.

NewPublicHealth:  How much has awareness of the Network grown since you launched in 2010?

Dan Stier: The volume of the requests has grown greatly, as have the complexity and timeliness of the requests. The fact that people are becoming increasingly aware of us means that we really are addressing issues in real time. Dramatic current examples include legal questions on public health services related to West Nile virus and Hurricane Isaac in real time.

>>Read an interview with James Hodge of the Network on legal questions on these and other recent public health crises.

Other requests include longer-term issues like shared services among local health departments. State and local health departments face budget cuts and so they are figuring out ways to do things more efficiently and economically, and oftentimes, that involves shared service agreements between local health departments. We’ve seen much more activity along those lines. More recently we’ve gotten an increasing number of questions on maternal and child health, particularly with respect to the provisions relating to children in the Affordable Care Act, so we now advertise that as another area of specialty.

NPH: How have people become aware of what the Network offers?  

Dan Stier: In addition to fielding calls, we’ve developed some larger products like our monthly webinars, fact sheets and issue briefs, and we’ve given hundreds of presentations around the country on various public health issues. So, we are coming to be known as the go-to legal resource for public health departments. Whatever you find going on in health departments on a day-to-day basis, whether it’s West Nile virus or Hurricane Isaac or whatever the issues will be in the coming days, people are immediately turning to us for legal answers.

NPH: What other issues have come up that you’d like to share so that the public health community knows that you have expertise in that area?

Dan Stier: As we move into our third year of existence that is a high priority of ours. We have not yet made final commitments as to what our new topics of expertise would be, but obviously with state and local health departments under siege from a budgetary standpoint and to an extent, under siege from a political perspective, we feel like we have to have our voices heard. One of our areas of increasing specialty has to do with the ability of state and local health departments to educate policy-makers, to advocate for public health positions, while at the same time, being careful not to violate the anti-lobbying rules under which we and the health departments operate. So, that is an important area of concern for us.

Another potential important area is on contracting procedures in state governments and how cumbersome they are in terms of moving federal money to state governments and on to local health departments and the complications associated with local health departments, being able to move state dollars to the local level. As they appear to be roadblocks to effective public health service delivery, we intend to concentrate efforts on that in the coming year. And then, of course, ready, willing, and able to get on top of cutting-edge issues as they evolve.

NPH: Another issue that’s come up recently is that in Chicago and other cities, education officials have been trying to solve budget cuts in some cases by closing some schools, especially troubled ones, and sending kids to other neighborhood schools. But in some instances these decisions can have unintended health and safety consequences for the community. Can you talk about that?

Dan Stier: These are obviously very tough budgetary times for state and local governments. I think it’s unfortunate that public health seems to be on the chopping block every time that cuts are made, and I think we have to continue to work to have our voices heard. Unfortunately, I think that schools are also finding themselves on the chopping block. Schools are being challenged to improve the performance of students but I think a lot of times, the political system and the public are looking for quick, easy answers and there aren’t any. I think that schools have to assess the unintended consequences of actions like school closings. When you close schools in neighborhoods threatened with high crime rates, in many instances they’re having kids go from the school they had been attending to another neighborhood and they’re crossing through different gang territory, and there’s the threat of increased violence when that happens. I saw a school board member in Chicago when the closings took place, saying we probably could have done a better job of listening to people in the community, and people in the community are expressing those sorts of concerns.

We use the term health impact assessments. I think that those sorts of assessments need to be made when school officials are acting in cases like school closings. On the other hand, I think that we in public health must have our voice heard with nontraditional public health partners like schools as they establish policies like school closings that may have public health consequences. And, we need to step up to the plate and be sure that those officials are assessing those potential public health impacts.

Clearly, school officials have the legal authority to close schools. In these budgetary times that’s an option that has to be on the table. But it is a law in this instance that can have public health implications that may, in fact, have an adverse impact on public health. So, I think the important thing here is when those kinds of laws are in play that we in public health make sure we have our voices heard to ask policy-makers to take a “health in all policies” approach.

NPH: “Health in all policies” can be a hard concept for people to grasp. How can we help policy-makers understand how health plays a role in far more issues and policies than they might think?

Dan Stier: The “health in all policies” approach is challenging. I think it’s critical that we proceed in that direction, but after all my years of working in public health in various settings with the Network, prior to that with the federal government, and before that in state government, it’s always been one of my major challenges—as I’m working on particular issues to be aware of what’s going on around me in other settings. We tend to focus on the matters in front of us. We keep our noses to the grindstone. People in public health certainly do that. People managing schools certainly do that. And, it’s so hard for us to lift our heads and look around at what’s going on in other settings. But if you’re a member of the school board contemplating the closing of a school and you have in front of you what your budget demands are and how many dollars will be saved by closing a school and consolidating those students with another school, until all the ramifications are put in front of you, it looks like a logical and reasonable course of action. “Health in all policies” means that for every such decision, the health of the students and the community should be considered as one factor in that decision.

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