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May 26, 2023
Early View Public Health
Michael S. Sparer
Lawrence D. Brown
The Future of Population Health
Back to The Milbank Quarterly
Context: The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the shortcomings of the United States public health system. High on the list is a public health workforce that is understaffed, underpaid, and undervalued. To rebuild that workforce, the American Rescue Plan (ARP) appropriated $7.66 billion to help create 100,000 new public health jobs. As part of this initiative, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) distributed roughly $2 billion to state, local, tribal, and territorial health agencies for use between July 1, 2021, and June 30, 2023. At the same time, several states have enacted (or are considering enacting) initiatives to increase state funding for their local health departments with the goal of ensuring that these departments can deliver a core set of services to all residents. The differences in approach between this first round of ARP funding and the separate state initiatives offer an opportunity to compare, contrast, and suggest lessons learned.
Methods: After interviewing leaders at the CDC and other experts on the nation’s public health workforce, we visited five states (Kentucky, Indiana, Mississippi, New York, and Washington) to examine, by means of interviews and documents, the implementation and impact of both the ARP workforce funds as well as the state-based initiatives.
Findings: Three themes emerged. First, states are not spending the CDC workforce funding in a timely fashion; although the specifics vary, there are several organizational, political, and bureaucratic obstacles. Second, the state-based initiatives follow different political paths but rely on the same overarching strategy: gain the support of local elected officials by providing funding directly to local health departments, albeit with performance strings attached. These state initiatives offer their federal counterparts a political roadmap toward a more robust model of public health funding. Third, even with increased funding, we will not meet the nation’s public health workforce challenges until we make public health a more attractive career path (with higher pay, improved working conditions, and more training and promotion opportunities) with fewer bureaucratic barriers to entry (most importantly, with less reliance on outdated civil service rules).
Conclusion: The politics of public health requires a closer look at the role played by county commissioners, mayors, and other local elected officials. We need a political strategy to persuade these officials that their constituents will benefit from a better public health system.
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