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When Public Health Professionals Gather . . .

posted on Mon, Dec 20 2010 10:27 am by Kathleen Dachille

Public Health Professionals

On December 10, the Network for Public Health Law’s Eastern Region hosted a meeting designed to determine public health officials' most pressing issues and the legal support they need to accomplish their goals. We were lucky to have representatives from: Delaware; District of Columbia; Maryland (State and local); West Virginia; National Association of County and City Health Officials; and Public Health Law Research Program.

A full recap of the meeting would be too much for this blog. Instead, we’ll touch on the few issues that unanimously called for legal clarification and support.

First, all in attendance agreed: Laws creating and giving power to state and local public health officials and boards are often unclear and incomplete. This confusion gives way to fear of taking action that might be challenged, impeding policy development.

To be sure, examples of strong and effective laws delineating the powers of public health officials and boards exist. While the Network cannot draft the perfect law for every state and local health department and board, we can:

  • Study existing laws;
  • Identify key components of effective laws;
  • Identify common problems with poorly drafted laws; and
  • Share that information with our constituency.

Comprehensive and clear laws will give state and local officials and boards the confidence to move forward with aggressive public health policy and to work collaboratively with other authorities when necessary.

Another dominant theme revolved around the relationship between public health agencies and school systems. Attendees are keenly aware of the importance of school systems in promoting sound health policy. From providing a nutritious lunch and assuring students receive mandatory vaccinations to conducting vision and hearing screenings and educating teens about sexually transmitted diseases, schools play a significant role in the health of the community.

Yet too often public health and school officials fail to collaborate effectively. This is often due to real or perceived legal hurdles. For example, school officials who fear violating HIPAA or FERPA do not share important information about student health that may help public health officials better understand and respond to the community’s health needs.

In the short-term, the Network can help by developing and providing fact sheets that clearly and completely assess schools’ obligations under privacy laws and explain when information sharing is permitted. A long-term project may include memoranda of understanding between public health and school officials to formalize relationships. Or it may include drafting laws that give public health authorities power to mandate collaboration by schools. This issue will require both research and political sensitivity to long-standing powers of various state and local entities.

A few other topics rose to the top of the conversation, such as:

  • Frustrating searches for local public health laws (as often those laws are not readily available online or otherwise);
  • Using government procurement to secure public health gains;
  • Integrating public health into the zoning process;
  • Developing direct relationships between public health practitioners and researchers; and
  • Determining what issues are appropriate for local regulation and what may be better addressed at the state or national level.

Again, there was much more to the conversation than that related here. But these were the most common issues that are suitable for significant effort from the Network. We hope that this was just the first of many opportunities for the Network to gauge the needs of the public health community. We also hope that blog readers will add to the conversation through comments or direct communication with the Network.

This information was developed by Kathleen Dachille, director of the Network for Public Health Law – Eastern Region.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.

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