As I reflect on my journey in the past year as the Executive Director of the Network for Public Health Law, the resilience and adaptability of the public health community in 2023 has been nothing short of inspiring. In the face of challenging social and political dynamics affecting critical public health issues, including reproductive health care access; restrictions on public health authority; the ongoing opioid overdose crisis; climate change; and persistent health inequities, we continue to strive to improve the health and well-being of all.
2023: Providing Critical Support in the Face of Emerging Challenges
The Network’s support to health agencies and other stakeholders in community health on key public health issues last year underscored our commitment to health equity and justice. In addition to providing direct legal technical assistance, we created resources and webinars that identified a series of “open door” legal pathways to access abortion services in parts of the U.S. and raised awareness of actions taken at all levels of government to enhance protections of abortion-related health records and data. We worked with advocates to advance evidence-based harm reduction laws and policies; helped agencies and their partners effectively share data by improving their understanding of laws and regulations; provided tools that stakeholders can use to examine the equity implications of policies; and facilitated dialog on climate change, health, and law, and more.
We hosted the 2023 Public Health Law Conference in Minneapolis in October and were heartened to see and connect with so many of you on the pressing issues examined in the more than 40 sessions and workshops. Creating opportunities like this to connect and collaborate to identify opportunities and address challenges is at the heart of what we do. We call it building capacity—making law and policy solutions accessible to those who are working to build healthier communities. It’s also our mission and the reason we remain a valued and trusted partner to the public health community.
2024: Building Capacity and Collaborating for Change
The year ahead is pivotal. The focus on public health has increasingly shifted to state legislatures, where ideological—rather than medical or scientific—considerations are shaping policies. The hyper-politicization of public health, compounded by the rampant spread of misinformation and disinformation, places an unprecedented burden on public health authorities, which will likely only increase with this year’s presidential election. This creates a challenging landscape in which understanding the legal parameters under which public health operates is more critical than ever, not only to assess limitations, but to identify opportunities. In 2024, building the capacity of those in the public health community to do just that will be a key priority.
“The Network will host a convening in the fall that will move beyond outlining the current environment to identifying specific strategies and avenues to move the needle in the direction of equity and justice .”
We see our role as a trusted partner, translator, and connector who facilitates collaboration among diverse stakeholders to forge a future where health equity is not just a vision but a tangible reality. Our work with community-based organizations as part of our partnership in the East Side Health and Well-Being Collaborative in St. Paul, Minnesota, our Climate Change, Health Equity and Public Health Learning and Practice Collaborative, and with the Collaborative on Anti-Racism and Equity brought to light the need to close the circle—to bring our expertise in identifying law and policy pathways to partners outside of public health who share similar goals.
With law and policy as the tool and avenue for change, we will work to build the capacity of community-based organizations. Building a shared understanding between diverse stakeholders, including community advocates and public health professionals, is crucial for driving system change. It’s important for each side to recognize how their work informs and amplifies the other.
In 2023, the Network was called to assist in addressing one of the most significant threats to the health of our communities—the lack of access to reproductive health care and rising maternal mortality rates. The current state of women and children’s health in the U.S. is alarming and a leading indicator of structural and systemic weaknesses that make it difficult to address parallel issues, including climate change, basic access to health care, substance use disorder treatment, health disparities, and more.
The public health issues we face require a coordinated effort that bring multiple diverse stakeholders to the table to identify opportunities for action. To that end, the Network will host a convening in the fall that will move beyond outlining the current environment to identifying specific strategies and avenues to move the needle in the direction of equity and justice. Watch for more information in the months ahead and plan to bring your knowledge and insight in working with others to face this issue head on.
Effecting Positive Change is a Collective Practice: We Join You in Working Toward a Better Future
After serving as a women’s health physician in India and an advocate for women’s health for more than two decades, I know that change is possible, but that it happens incrementally. Together, we will affect positive change on the national level—one state, one jurisdiction, one intervention at a time. Whenever someone connects with the Network to examine an issue or identify how they can use their legal authority or reimagine their policies, momentum builds.
Ongoing requests for Network assistance and consultation from multiple individuals and organizations across the U.S. represent this collective will for change. The Network provides evidence-based research and best practices. Our agenda is to demystify the complexity that often surrounds law and policy. We are decoders, translators, and connectors. In the new year, our commitment to advancing public health for all is stronger than ever. It will require patience, persistence, and resilience, along with a clear vision, empowered partnerships, and collaborative effort, but I am confident in our ability to make positive change. I encourage you to contact the Network to identify opportunities for your programs and initiatives. The Network—like all of us—thrives on collaboration. Your expertise, insights, and support are invaluable as we tackle these challenges. In 2024 and beyond, we can shape a healthier, more equitable future.