AUGUSTA, Maine — There’s no gripping, prime-time television show about the workaday world of public health professionals. Nothing like “E.R.” or “Grey’s Anatomy” or even “CSI” glamorizes the process of safeguarding the nation’s public water supplies, educating people about the dangers of smoking, advocating for healthful school lunches, tracking measles out-breaks, or lobbying lawmakers to support universal access to health care.
But according to a national expert speaking in Maine on Monday, without such efforts and the many others that fall under the capacious but low-profile public health umbrella, the well-being of the nation would be undermined.
Speaking at the 24th annual meeting of the Maine Public Health Association, keynote speaker Linda Degutis, president of the American Public Health Association, told participants they must prepare to educate the incoming president — as well as state and congressional lawmakers — about the critical field of public health and the need to uphold its priorities.
“A lot of people don’t know what public health does,” Degutis said. While it is true that public health clinics provide health care services to people without insurance coverage or the money to pay out of pocket, she said, the field is much broader than that. Issues as disparate as food safety, antibiotic use in farm animals, seat belt and helmet laws, the shortage of health care workers, physical activity programs in public schools, and exposure to toxic materials in the environment also are public health concerns, she noted.
The American Public Health Association has lobbied Congress for the reauthorization and expansion of the national State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, which provides health care coverage for children whose families make too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford private insurance. Despite broad bipartisan support for the legislation, President Bush vetoed it earlier this year on the grounds that it would encourage families to give up private coverage in favor of the public program.
“The next president, whoever it is, is very likely to sign it, so that’s the good news,” Degutis said. Other good news includes the inclusion of long-sought mental health parity legislation in the recently passed $700 billion bank bailout bill and the infusion of federal dollars into the nation’s emergency preparedness system as a result of the anthrax bioterrorism scares of 2001.
In Maine, eight public health regions established about a year ago are working to combat obesity, tobacco and drug abuse while encouraging healthful lifestyles and improving the management of chronic diseases. Shawn Yardley, director of the Bangor Region Public Health and Wellness program and newly named vice president of the Maine Public Health Association, said Monday that his program recently unveiled What You Do Matters, a one-stop online resource for Penobscot and Piscataquis counties.
The Bangor program was a prime supporter of a city ordinance in 2007 that banned smoking in cars when children are present and is in talks with city officials and public health experts about banning smoking at outdoor events such as the American Folk Festival and the Bangor State Fair, Yardley said. Other activities over the past year include working with area schools and preschools to promote physical activity, coordinating public forums on addiction recovery and underage drinking, and teaching cardiopulmonary resuscitation to individuals in the drug-abusing population.
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