Emerging Trend: Investing in public health

We often hear the term “public health” used in different contexts, but what exactly does it mean?

Public health often refers to the many ways federal, state and local governments improve and protect community health and wellbeing — often accomplished through the ten essential public health services.1 At a high level, public health focuses on health and wellness in a community setting. For example, public health might look like getting children vaccinated, food safety, disease surveillance, educating people about the risk of substance use disorders and smoking, and other areas of health that impact people at a local level.

Since 2008, public health funding has experienced significant cuts. This has led to a diminished workforce and fewer resources, impacting the ability for the public health infrastructure to respond to emergencies — including COVID-19.

With public health agencies under-resourced, understaffed and overburdened, they were not adequately equipped to quickly respond to the pandemic. A renewed focus on public health in the policy landscape will be critical for maintaining a strong, robust infrastructure that is prepared for future public health emergencies.

Building partnerships with public health agencies

Social determinants of health (SDOH) heavily influence community health. Yet, many public health agencies do not have adequate support or resources to address these needs within their communities. We have seen not only an increase in housing and food insecurity since COVID-19, but also a drop in preventive care visits (e.g., cancer screenings, well child visits, routine immunizations).

Using our internal capabilities and insights, UnitedHealthcare Community & State helps public health agencies identify these types of shifts in community health and collaborates to find solutions. Many times, this includes identifying a public health outcome and providing the technology, data and resources to help achieve it.

For example, the Community Plan of Ohio works closely with state public health agencies to protect children from exposure to lead paint, which can have serious consequences on children, including slowed growth, and developmental and behavioral problems. Through this partnership, we identified members with children living in high-risk areas, raised awareness and coordinated care to keep families safe. Our teams have also worked with public health agencies across the nation to test for COVID-19 through our STOP COVID initiatives. Bringing resources into high-risk areas through these partnerships has helped contain the spread of disease, and is a great example of how managed care advances market-specific public health priorities.

Focusing new policies on public health

New bills and initiatives, like the American Rescue Plan, have the potential to help enhance public health infrastructure.2 Based on the relief bill, $7.4 billion in funding will go toward public health infrastructure and response, allowing further support for the current pandemic as well as future health care challenges. This would ensure preparations are in place for future emergencies, and would also create thousands of jobs to support key functions like vaccination events, contact tracing, COVID-19 testing, community outreach and more.

From the American Rescue Plan’s public health funding, $4.4 billion will go directly toward expanding public health staffing and workforce, and $3 billion will go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to create new grant programs. These programs are expected to facilitate investments in people and expertise at both state and local levels to train and modernize the public health workforce. Younger generations have showed an increased interest in the public health field since the beginning of the pandemic. With a potential future influx of workers, these grants could help create job opportunities for these individuals, thereby improving the sustainability of public health in the United States.

Sustaining a renewed focus on public health

The pandemic reminded us just how important it is to support the critical work that public health agencies accomplish. Building out our public health infrastructure could encourage events like COVID-19 testing and vaccination drives in local communities and create more convenient access to care. To promote health equity and protect the health and wellbeing of communities, public health will need additional support. A renewed focus on this essential work is vital to improving health outcomes. 

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