130: ASTHO’s State of the Union Response

Carolyn Mullen, ASTHO’s Senior Vice President of Government Affairs and Public Relations, reacts to President Biden’s comments about public health in his State of the Union address Tuesday night; Jeffrey Ekoma, ASTHO’s Senior Director of...

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Carolyn Mullen, ASTHO’s Senior Vice President of Government Affairs and Public Relations, reacts to President Biden’s comments about public health in his State of the Union address Tuesday night; Jeffrey Ekoma, ASTHO’s Senior Director of Government Affairs, says the work ASTHO members did last week on Capitol Hill was time well spent; and Heidi Westermann, ASTHO’s Director of Public Health Systems and Planning, explains how ASTHO is teaming with government and public health officials in Guam to help improve hiring and procurement processes.

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This is Public Health Review Morning Edition for Thursday, March 3rd, 2022. I'm Robert Johnson.

Now, today's news from the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.


The United States won't become complacent in its response to COVID-19—that was President Biden's message Tuesday night during his first State of the Union address.

Carolyn Mullen, ASTHO's senior vice president of government affairs and public relations, says ASTHO is ready to get to work.


ASTHO looks forward to working with President Biden and Congress to make sure the promise of the State of the Union is realized. Specifically around the COVID-19 pandemic, as we enter the new phase we want to ensure that Americans increase their uptake of COVID-19 vaccinations and we also work collaboratively to detect new variants.

The president also made some important indicators of where he would like to go in public health priorities such as addressing the opioid epidemic, and also the looming mental health crisis that our youth, healthcare workers, and public health workforce faces after two years of the global pandemic.


Next up, the president's proposed budget for the next fiscal year. Mullen says:


We'll take a look at the president's proposal with a critical eye and then advocate for key priorities of our membership, which includes funding for public health infrastructure, addressing the opioid crisis, and ensuring there are resources available to address the mental health of our nation.


You can read ASTHO's statement on the president's address to the nation using the link in the show notes.


It's a busy time for public health advocates in Washington, D.C. Several ASTHO members met with elected officials and staff on Capitol Hill last week to highlight policy and funding priorities. It was all part of ASTHO's annual Washington Week activities. ASTHO's senior director of government affairs Jeffrey Ekoma offers highlights of the week's agenda in today's morning conversation.

Public Health has been a big topic of discussion on Capitol Hill the last two years because of the pandemic, but that seems to be lessening a little bit right now in terms of what people are dealing with as far as the virus is concerned. How is public health doing, based on your conversations with members? How are they thinking about public health this year? What's their mood toward this whole position of making sure we have the resources we need to get the job done?


There has been extreme level of support for public health on Capitol Hill.

Just sort of where we are now with the pandemic, I think the support continues to increase; and what ASTHO's doing along with its members is continuing to increase the pressure for Congress, ensure that we're not continuing in this boom and bust cycle of public health and that we're adequately funding public health for not just the current pandemic, but for future public health emergencies.

The big message I would say that our members really wanted to hone in is talking about the importance of public health infrastructure and ensuring that we're building the necessary infrastructure across public health departments to be able to respond to any future and any current emergencies that are happening that are not COVID-19-related.


What was the reaction to that message?


The reaction was positive. Members of Congress and their staff are really interested in, one, figuring out what has been the overall response to the pandemic, what are the big things that are plaguing public health departments currently; but—more importantly—what other resources and policies and guidance are needed to continue on in supporting public health departments. And I think that message resonated very well with members of Congress and their staff.

However, they still wanted to make sure that members of Congress and their staff really knew the importance of finalizing FY 22 appropriations, which include money for public health infrastructure. And the fight has really been to ensure that there's at least $1 billion for public health infrastructure in FY 22, and hopefully that will set the stage for current appropriation cycles in supporting public health infrastructure.


You always have takeaways from these meetings when you're having a lot of them all at once. What are the takeaways this time around? What did ASTHO and the members learn that can help guide their actions engaging with Congress through the end of this year?


One is to continue to have these conversations. Ongoing conversations are really important building relationships with members of Congress and our staff so that they are continually abreast on sort of the needs for public health as they're going forward.

Many members of Congress and their staff mentioned a lot of other priorities that are really happening within the states, one being opioids, and suicide—preventing suicide deaths within states. Another really big thing that came up were how do we better plan for the next emergency.

So, I would say that there are a lot of other things that were happening in these meetings that were non-COVID-19, as I think the general sense is as we transitioned more and more out of sort of the ongoing response to a more stable response and really getting into the other issues that are really important to state health officials and territorial officials.


Overall, time well-spent?


Absolutely time well-spent. I think our members really enjoy the opportunity to meet with members of Congress and really provide them updates. But more importantly, they really use the opportunity to say thank you, and thank you for the ongoing support and the ongoing collaboration that really is important to really have an impact for public health and state and territorial health departments.



Finally today, ASTHO is teaming with government and public health officials in Guam to help improve hiring and procurement processes. Heidi Westermann is ASTHO'S director of public health systems and planning. She says work will help Guam address challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.


And one of those is that, with so much federal funding coming to Guam and other jurisdictions, there is increasing pressure to spend those federal dollars—spend them well and spend them fast—because we want to ensure that we're getting those public health services out to the population.

But spending those dollars well and fast takes that underlying infrastructure, and so any weaknesses or opportunities for improvement in that underlying infrastructure kind of inhibit our ability to spend those federal funds. And that was a specific need we were talking about during our time in Guam.


Westermann was part of a team that spent four days in Guam last month, meeting with the governor and attorney general and working with government and public health teams to lay the groundwork for ongoing consultations.


That'll do it for today's newscast. We are back tomorrow morning with more ASTHO news and information.

I'm Robert Johnson. You're listening to Public Health Review Morning Edition. Have a great day.

Heidi Westermann MPH

Director, Performance Improvement, ASTHO

Carolyn Mullen

Senior Vice President, Government Affairs & PR, ASTHO

Jeffrey Ekoma

Senior Director, Government Affairs, ASTHO