On Tuesday, October 26, the Subcommittee on Health of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce held a legislative hearing, “Caring for America: Legislation to Support Patients, Caregivers, and Providers.” The Subcommittee heard from seven witnesses, including NACCHO President Lisa Macon Harrison, who testified in support of H.R. 3297, the “Public Health Workforce Loan Repayment Act of 2021,” a key item on NACCHO’s 2021 Legislative Agenda.
The hearing examined seven bills, five of which were bipartisan, focused on supporting caregivers, healthcare workers, and the future workforce pipeline. Both Ranking Member Guthrie and Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) mentioned the importance of the Public Health Workforce Loan Repayment Act in their opening statements. Rep. Guthrie emphasized the bill’s bipartisan nature, and Rep. Pallone cited the bill as a way to expand the pandemic response and strengthen workforce resiliency.
In her testimony, Ms. Harrison, who is also the Director of the Granville-Vance Public Health Department, highlighted the public health workforce crisis faced nationwide. She explained that no other healthcare partners have the same breadth of responsibility for communicable disease control as public health workers. As an example, she shared that twelve public health nurses in her district have delivered more than 40,000 COVID-19 vaccines, which is over half of the COVID-19 vaccines delivered to the population of those small rural counties. Ms. Harrison testified that health departments were understaffed and overworked before the pandemic, and that workforce challenges have been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic due to burnout, longer hours at low pay, and harassment from the public. Ms. Harrison explained that during COVID-19 she has seen an increased turnover rate among her already lean staff and cautioned that she expects turnover to increase even more once the pandemic ends. In rural areas like those served by Granville-Vance Public Health, recruitment is challenging and it can take months to fill vacant positions.
To build the public health workforce for the 21st century, Ms. Harrison cited three factors to address: retaining current staff, recruiting top new talent, and expanding the workforce with more predictable, sustainable funding. The Public Health Workforce Loan Repayment Act, modeled after the National Health Service Corps, would be the first dedicated program to help recruit and retain top talent into public health departments. If passed, the bill would provide up to $35,000 in loan repayment for a three-year commitment to a local, state, or Tribal health department. Individuals eligible for this program include those with public health or health professions degrees as well as those with a degree in statistics, computer science, or related information technology fields. NACCHO has compiled a frequently asked questions document for reference.
Ms. Harrison also testified on additional support needed to address other public health workforce challenges. First, public health departments need predictable, sustained, and disease-agnostic funding to expand the employee base. Second, salaries and benefits must be increased so that current staff and those in the pipeline will stay in the public health field.
To see the full hearing, click here.