Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Closing Session: 'Social justice is the foundation of our field'

The promise of health reform is not safe — that was the message during this year's Closing Session in Denver, which opened its mountainous arms to more than 12,000 APHA Annual Meeting attendees.

Despite its potential to expand coverage to millions, its historic investment in prevention and wellness, and projections that it will save billions of dollars in the long term, the nation's landmark health reform law is vulnerable — especially in light of the recent congressional elections.

"This is a good bill, not a perfect bill," said session speaker Paul Jarris, executive director of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, who described the new health reform law as a substantial step forward.

Still, the fight for the law's survival isn't over, he noted. Almost half of states are suing the federal government over health reform, 40 different bills have been introduced in state legislatures to prohibit some aspect of reform and with a number of new governors poised to take office at a crucial time in reform's implementation process, problems are sure to arise. The answer? Become advocates, he said.

"Do you know this bill," Jarris asked. "Do you know how to talk about it in a way that everybody can understand?"

Maryland Secretary of Health and Mental Hygiene John Colmers, who described himself as a "passionate incrementalist," also called on session attendees to use storytelling to advocate for health reform.

Colmers cautioned that budget and deficit issues are going to drive much of the ongoing reform debate, adding that when "I think about public health (budgets), I shudder."

Unfortunately, reform supporters never convinced enough people of the notion that it's a good thing to pay into a system that will provide care for themselves and their families, said session speaker Sara Rosenbaum, chair of the Department of Health Policy at George Washington University. The great communication task before us is to bring the issue of health reform back to an everyday level — to help people grasp the enormous opportunity before us that we may be in danger of losing, she said.

"It's very clear we have work to do," said APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin, who asked the Closing Session audience what they would do to ensure the promise of reform when they return home.

He called on them to do three things: Meet with your local elected officials and tell them what you want; when they don't vote the way you think they should, remind yourself that they work for you; and get off the bus and get into the streets. Demand health, Benjamin said, demand social justice.

Well, it's been an amazing meeting — the best that this blogger has had the privilege to attend. The energy to bring public health's unique form of social justice to communities worldwide has been palpable.

Let's bring that energy with us next year to the nation's capital for APHA's 139th Annual Meeting, which will have a theme of "Healthy Communities Promote Healthy Minds & Bodies."

"We reaffirmed that social justice is the foundation of our field," said new APHA President Linda Rae Murray at the Closing Session. "This attempt to drive our nation backward should not be a surprise. But I'm not worried. We're public health — we won't be bamboozled."

See you next year in Washington, D.C.!

— K.K.

Above, Closing Session speakers from left to right: Sara Rosenbaum, Paul Jarris, John Colmers and session moderator Joanne Silberner of National Public Radio. Photo by Kim Krisberg


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