The one thing I didn't expect when I attended APHA's Summit on Health Reform today was to get emotional. Policy and practice, yes. Feeling tears well up behind my eyes, no. But that's what happened when summit speaker Howard Koh, assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, presented a short video of Gail O'Brien, an uninsured cancer patient from New Hampshire.
Before the enactment of national health reform, Gail, who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, couldn't get insurance. With her pre-existing condition, she was denied coverage. Thankfully, health reform changed everything. After the March signing of the groundbreaking health law, people with pre-existing health conditions finally had insurance options — including Gail. In the video, Gail receives a phone call from President Barack Obama, telling him "if wasn't for you, I probably wouldn't be here right now."
It's an emotional moment: To see how policy transforms people's lives...how policy changes can help save people's lives. It was a motivating way to help kick off APHA's Summit on Health Reform, where more than 400 people gathered to learn more about the public health and prevention provisions of the health reform law and discuss ways to ensure that public health remains central to reform's implementation.
After welcoming remarks, HHS' Koh broke down the complicated health reform law, discussing implementation dates and explaining key provisions, including the law's public health aspects and how they can transform the nation's current health system. In fact, he said federal health officials will soon be releasing a new report outlining priority areas for improving quality in public health. (The report is now available).
"I know that health is a gift and the only way to protect that gift is through the power of public health," Koh said.
U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin took to the stage next, hailing the heath reform law for requiring the coverage of proven and effective preventive services, such as mammograms and prostate screenings. Benjamin told attendees that as chair of the new National Prevention, Health Promotion and Public Health Council, she and colleagues will be working hard to develop the first-ever National Prevention Strategy — working to "move from a system of sick care to a system of wellness and prevention." Our goal, she said, should be making the United States No. 1 in life expectancy.
Well, the task ahead seems daunting, especially in light of the recent gains among health reform's opponents. Luckily, it isn't like public health to back down.
"It won't be enough to study health reform, we're going to have to be activists," said APHA President Carmen Nevarez during the summit's opening. "Vote public health."
Above, from left to right, APHA Summit on Health Reform speakers: Massachusetts Health Commissioner John Auerbach, APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin, U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, APHA President Carmen Nevarez, HHS Assistant Secretary for Health Howard Koh and summit moderator Anthony Iton. Photo by Kim Krisberg