Friday, August 8, 2014

Let’s Nurture Public Health with Some Purple Rain

At the beginning of this week I was in Washington D.C. for the “graduation” of the first cohort of the Aspen Institute’s Excellence in State Public Health Law (ESPHL) program. The ESPHL program brought together teams from 8 states to work on a variety of public health issues that could benefit from policy analysis and policy changes. With funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and technical assistance from policy experts from across the country, the teams looked at public health issues like children’s oral health, girls’ physical activity, breast-feeding, chronic disease prevention, strengthening local public health, and new primary care models.

Minnesota’s team, consisting of 4 legislators (Miller, Eaton, Allen, Zerwas), 3 commissioners (Dohman, Jesson, Ehlinger), and 1 utility infielder (Munson-Regala), was focused on reducing the devastation caused by the binge drinking of alcohol. After considering the evidence-based interventions like increasing the price of alcohol, decreasing the Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) for driving, and social host ordinances (among other approaches): polling Minnesotan’s about their views on those issues; and considering what is politically feasible at this time, the team decided to focus on ignition interlock systems for first-time offenders. We’ll see how that plays out over the next year.

The majority of the meeting was spent listening to the status reports from each team but the conference was launched and keynoted by Kathleen Sebelius, former Secretary of the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. Her presentation highlighted many of the health problems faced by the United States but also acknowledged the public health opportunities afforded by the Affordable Care Act. A subtext of her comments was the recognition of the political polarization that has developed around health and health care reform which has slowed progress on many issues. 

With the perspective of Secretary Sebilius in the background I listened with interest as each team provided an update on what they leaned and what they accomplished during the course of this one-year ESPHL experience.  As I listened to each presentation, it was apparent that the core of the public health issues each state was addressing was really non-partisan; that, regardless of political persuasion, these were issues of concern for almost everyone. Certainly, the approaches to addressing these issues varied depending on one’s political persuasion but the goals were the same. 

When it was my turn to report on the progress of the Minnesota team, I was struck by the fact that I was presenting on the 30th anniversary of Prince Rogers Nelson’s album “Purple Rain” reaching number 1 on the charts. Given that many of the approaches to addressing public health issues vary markedly between “Red States” and “Blue States,” it dawned on me that most, if not all, of these issues should be purple issues – non-partisan issues that should be addressed in a non-partisan way.

With that in mind, I ended my presentation by quoting a verse from Purple Rain:

I know, I know, I know times are changing
It's time we all reach out
For something new, that means you too
You say you want a leader…
(So) let me guide you to the purple rain

My experience with the ESPHL program reinforced that most people want the same things for themselves, their kids, their grandkids, and their communities. They want people to have the opportunity to blossom and flourish.  While people have different opinions about how to achieve those things, the program also taught me that movement forward on the overarching goals is best achieved by combining a little red and a little blue and watering these public health seeds with purple rain.

Purple rain, purple rain
I only want to see you
Only want to see you
In the purple rain.

Ed