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Senate HELP Committee Holds Hearing on Rebuilding Public Health Infrastructure

Jul 30, 2021 | Jackie Weinrich

On Tuesday, July 27, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) held a hearing entitled “The Path Forward: Building on Lessons Learned from the COVID-19 Pandemic.” This hearing continued on the theme of last week’s hearing, “The Path Forward: A Federal Perspective on the COVID-19 Response.” Read more about that hearing, in which federal officials testified on booster shots, vaccination campaigns, federal supply reserves, and the Delta variant, here. This week’s hearing focused on how the federal government can adequately prepare the public health system for the next emergency.

Witnesses testifying before the committee included:

  • Les Becker, Deputy Secretary of Innovation, Washington State Department of Health
  • Phyllis Arthur, Vice President of Infectious Diseases and Diagnostics Policy, Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO)
  • Dr. David Janz, Director of Medical Critical Care Services, University Medical Center New Orleans
  • Anita Cicero, Deputy Director of Center for Health Security, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

In her opening remarks, Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) championed public health infrastructure investment, noting that public health departments have been alarmingly underfunded and understaffed for years, and are anticipating further staffing challenges, with nearly half of public health workers thinking of retiring in the next five years. She drew on the experiences of local health authorities, quoting both Patty Hayes, former director of public health in King County, and an unnamed Kansan health authority who pointed out that “we don’t say to the fire department: ‘Oh, I’m sorry, there were no fires last year so we’re going to take 30% of your budget away,’ and we shouldn’t be doing that with public health either.” Chair Murray closed her remarks with a call for action on the Public Health Infrastructure Saves Lives Act (PHISLA), which would provide sustained, predictable funding for the foundational capabilities of public health across the nation.

Ranking Member Burr (R-NC), in his opening remarks, spoke about the need to fortify existing public health structures. Burr praised the FDA, which he considered the “gold standard” for COVID-19 response for their quick approval of vaccines and therapeutics, but critiqued the CDC and other systems which he said need to do better. He announced his intention for the committee to provide a targeted bipartisan legislative response this fall to address the biggest gaps in public health preparedness and response infrastructure.

Mr. Becker, Deputy Secretary of Innovation at Washington State Department of Health and former Harris County Public Health employee, described the current state of public health data, asserting that people do not realize how “decrepit and disparate” public health data systems are. He presented three major priorities for public health data modernization: interoperability, public-private partnerships, and the need to invest in well-coordinated local, state, and federal data systems through regional innovation hubs. He ended his remarks with both a warning – if nothing changes, we will get more of the same, so Congress needs to either act now or react later – and a declaration of support for PHISLA.

The remaining witnesses focused on other aspects of public health infrastructure, including biomedical countermeasures and healthcare system fortification. Ms. Arthur, representing BIO, laid out priorities to strengthen preparedness in the biotechnology sector, including building capacity for clinical trials, preemptively researching potential threats, fortifying the domestic supply chain, and investing in CDC and HHS infrastructure to support these efforts. Ms. Cicero gave similar recommendations, emphasizing the need to shift from reactive to a proactive posture in terms of biomedical innovation. Dr. Janz, a physician from the University Medical Center New Orleans, spoke of the strain on the healthcare system and professionals over the course of the pandemic and the need to rejuvenate that sector.

NACCHO has been advocating for increased investment in public health infrastructure and data system modernization. To read more about our work with Congress and the Administration on these issues, go here.


About Jackie Weinrich

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