Innovating, Leading and Moving Public Health Forward at APHA

Nov 3, 2013, 4:43 PM

In the face of health care reform, funding challenges, and increased collaboration, public health faces a promising yet unclear future in terms of both financial support and program reach. On Saturday, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation co-hosted a forum with the American Public Health Association (APHA) in advance of the APHA 2013 Annual Meeting to discuss these issues – and more. Leading minds from the fields of public health, government and business met to get to the bottom of a crucial question: how do we move public health forward?

In the opening session, Paul Kuehnert, Director of the Public Health Team at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, explained that the field’s challenge lies in “skating where the puck is going to be.” APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin echoed that sentiment, nothing that the forum was “an opportunity to figure out where the public is going and then, when the wave comes, be right there to catch it.” The ensuing breakout sessions furthered this overarching theme with panels that discussed both the challenges they’ve faced -- and the opportunities they’ve found for success.

>>NewPublicHealth will be on the ground throughout the APHA conference speaking to public health leaders and presenters, hearing from attendees on the ground and providing updates from sessions, with a focus on how we can build a culture of health. Follow the coverage here.

Re-Thinking How We Pay for Public Health and Prevention

One panel discussed funding challenges that public health departments face and solutions that have been reached across the country. John Auerbach of Northeastern University’s Institute on Urban Health Research, and former health commissioner of Massachusetts, touched on health care reform as a vehicle for preventive care. “Nearly 75 percent of those insured in Massachusetts have had a preventive care visit in the last 12 months,” he explained.  In other words, people who are insured are twice as likely to get care that could actually prevent them from getting sick, instead of having a treat a more serious illness. Auerbach also discussed development of the state’s Prevention and Wellness Trust Fund — a four-year, $60 million public health trust supported by a one-time assessment on health insurers and largest clinical providers. Auerbach stressed that this source of funding was important, particularly because it’s insulated from the variability of public funding and political tides.

By focusing on the critical services and programs that are truly necessary for the public health system to work, the Seattle and King County Health Department has developed a minimum package of public health services needed for all projects to success. David Fleming, Director and Health Officer in the Seattle/King County Health Department, and his staff determined the money needed to fund such a package in both per capita and overall costs. Washington State is now working with RWJF and other stakeholders to determine the feasibility of defining and costing these foundational services at the national level.

Healthy Communities: Healthy County: San Bernardino, Calif.

Advancing Health Where It Starts

Over in Minneapolis, an RWJF Roadmaps to Health Prize winner, community organizing has played a critical role in advancing public health issues and policy. The city’s health department and more than 40 non-profit organizations are working together to improve health in lower-income communities by involving those who experience the greatest inequity in the process.

“My job is to empower people at the local level to give them power and get them at the table making decisions about what makes a difference,” said Edward Ehlinger, Minnesota Commissioner of Health. At both the local and state level, Ehlinger explained, Minnesota’s health department has successfully encouraged residents and other officials to see the health impacts of all actions.

Other sessions at the RWJF-APHA forum discussed community health in San Bernardino County, Calif., the importance of data in driving health action, and the need to pull different groups from across sectors together to move initiatives forward. Throughout the day, public health leaders from all levels had the opportunity to ask questions, offer insights, and dive deeper into important public health issues.

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