Monday, March 11, 2013

Greetings from D.C.

In the midst of Tuesday’s snow, I flew out of Minneapolis to attend the ASTHO (Association of State and Territorial Health Officials) board meeting and Day on the Hill in Washington D.C. My flight was delayed so I missed the morning meetings with the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, OMB Director for Health, and the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security. I was disappointed not only because I couldn’t meet with these folks but because I had never been in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. My security clearance was for naught. Perhaps next year.

However, I was able to meet with the majority staff for the Senate Labor-HHS Appropriations Committee, and the majority staff for the House Labor-HHS Appropriations Committee. The two meetings were markedly different. Although both meetings focused on sequestration and the impact it would have on public health, the discussion in the Senate meeting was much more about the long-term strategy to protect and enhance public health. The House meeting discussion was much more about increasing efficiency, reducing duplication, and lowering spending. It was obvious that the 2 chambers have different agendas. Regardless of their differences, the bottom line in both meetings was that the next couple of years are going to be difficult ones for public health.

Of note with the Senate staffer was the discussion about Iowa Senator Harkin, who is on the Appropriations Committee and chairs the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.  Senator Harkin has been a champion of public health and particularly the Community Transformation Grants and services to people with disabilities. He will not be running for reelection so the question was asked what he would be working on for the next two years. Besides specific public health issues, it was mentioned that he would be mentoring other Senators to take on leadership roles around public health. Of interest to those of us in Minnesota, Senator Al Franken’s name came up as someone who is being groomed to deal with chronic diseases.

This morning I woke up to the news that the federal government was closed because of the forecast of the biggest snowstorm of the season. Because of that, all my Hill visits were cancelled. Fortunately, we were able to hold the ASTHO board meeting today and I was able to reschedule all my Hill visits for Thursday. The irony in all of the weather drama was that there was no snow accumulation in D.C. all day. The temperature remained in the high 30s and the precipitation went back and forth between snow and rain. It was strange to have the federal government shut down because of snow when there was no snow. I hope tomorrow brings less drama.

Part of the ASTHO board agenda was honoring Mary Selecky one of its long-term members who will be retiring in the next couple of months. Mary has been the Secretary of Health for the State of Washington since 1999 and has served three governors. Her tenure is quite unusual. From what I’ve been told, the average tenure of a SHO is between 18 and 24 months. Since this was Mary’s last Board meeting, a surprise celebration party was held for her on Wednesday night. Many public health big-wigs showed up and said wonderful things about Mary. She has played a huge role in public health in the state of Washington and nationally. Most impressive, at least to me, was how she nurtured talent. She has been a mentor, supporter, and role model for hundreds of public health leaders throughout the country, including me. I think that will be one of her greatest legacies.

In talking about her entrance into public health and what has guided her throughout her career, she mentioned that as a child whenever she and her siblings complained about the chores they were required to do, her dad would recite the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem “A Psalm of Life.” The message she got from the poem and from her father was “don’t complain – do something to make the world better.” She then recited the following stanzas of the poem:

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o'er life's solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

There were lots of misty eyes in the room when she finished. I also sensed that there was a renewed resolve among all present to follow Mary’s example and not let the problems of sequester and inadequate investment derail our public health efforts. Instead, I felt a new resolve in the group to “be up and doing” for the sake of the people we serve. Still, most of us acknowledged that, given our short tenure as SHOs, it is difficult to “Learn…to wait.”

Ed