By Serena Vinter, Dara Alpert Lieberman, and Jeff Levi, authors of a recent article for the Harvard Law & Policy Review. Vinter is Senior Research Associate; Lieberman is Government Relations Manager; and Levi is Executive Director at Trust for America's Health, a non-profit, nonpartisan public health policy and advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.
Is the United States prepared for the next public health emergency? We've certainly faced our fair share of major public health crises over the past decade, including the 2009-2010 H1N1 influenza pandemic, natural disasters like Hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008 and Katrina and Rita in 2005. Americans also experienced the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 and the anthrax mailings in October of the same year.
Were these events wake-up calls to spur action? Based on the year-long health reform debate in Washington -- and the nearly complete absence of any serious discussion among elected officials and the general public about how a reforming health system could enhance our nation's ability to respond to public health emergencies -- it would appear that instead the country hit the snooze button and has lapsed back into complacency.
If we are serious about being prepared to confront the next public health threat, we need to modernize our public health and health delivery systems and take advantage of the opportunities the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (P.L. 111-148) presents to build prevention, preparedness, and response into our nation's public health and health care systems.
In our recent essay for the Harvard Law & Policy Review, Public Health Preparedness in a Reforming Health System, we examine how comprehensive health reform can be used to strengthen our nation, while noting that even with health reform, major gaps remain in our public health preparedness. Addressing these underlying weaknesses in our health system will not be easy or cheap, but failure to address these concerns could prove extremely costly.
As we come upon the five-year anniversary or Hurricane Katrina this August -- which left more than 1,800 people dead, caused some $81 billion in damages, and left the Gulf Coast region's public health and health care systems in shambles -- we hope that it won't take another natural disaster of this magnitude for our country to move ahead on strengthening our nation's preparedness.