3 ways to move the conversation on public health forward

Editor’s note: This piece was written in response to John McDonough’s article in the American Journal of Public Health titled “Shorter lives and poorer health on the campaign trail.” Read McDonough’s article here

McDonough is right about two very important things. First, that in America we have quite dismal outcomes for the enormous amount we spend on health care. And second, that there is a real opportunity for a new political dialog between left and right to take root—though perhaps one that is more of a quiet agreement than a high-profile grand bargain. 

McDonough wisely draws attention in Figure 3 of his editorial to the sharp distinction between the United States and other Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries in the relative proportions of gross domestic product spent on health services and social services. The United States is a lonely outlier because we overmedicalize our approach to health conditions and community health. Generally a blend of social, housing, public health, and other preventive strategies would yield better health results than calling an ambulance—and at a fraction of the cost. Even our higher survival rates after age 75 years is a mixed blessing, as Gawande points out, because expensive and frequent medical interventions may extend age but often not the quality of life.1 

The good news, both substantively and politically in this election year, is the growing recognition that addressing the social determinants of health is a key—perhaps the key—to improving health outcomes while slowing the growth in health spending as a proportion of gross domestic product and public spending. McDonough and I agree on that, despite his affection for Bernie Sanders’ utopian Medicare-for-all, which likely would do little to address the underlying cost and outcomes problem. 

So how could a new conversation develop, of the kind both we both would like to see? I think on several fronts. 

First, building on existing collaboration, serious analysts and policymakers on both sides of the political spectrum should explain more extensively how resources currently restricted to either health care or social services and housing should and could be more routinely braided together. Despite some interesting experiments and demonstrations that allow certain health and housing money to be mixed and used creatively, budget restrictions and payment systems generally make this dif- ficult. We could seek to agree on a mixture of legislative action on payments and budgets, and using Medicaid (Section 1115) waivers, to permit money currently available only for medical services to be used instead for housing and social services where that could be shown to improve the health of individuals in a community. 

Second, we could agree on bipartisan steps to allow states to experiment with more creative approaches to alter the blend of strategies they have available to achieve improved health outcomes. Section 1332 of the Affordable Care Act (Pub L No. 111–148) is a start, since it will allow states to propose alternatives to some Affordable Care Act provisions to improve coverage and outcomes without increasing federal costs. McDonough and I agree on using 1332 waivers in this way. But a further step would be legislation to allow states to seek even broader waivers to shift money between health and social service programs. For that to happen, conservatives would have to accept increases in total spending on some social service programs. Progressives would have to accept reductions in health programs and reduce their reluctance to granting states more flexibility. Both would have to accept rigorous evaluation to determine what works and what does not. 

And third, there is an opportunity for agreement on empowering intermediary institutions2 in neighborhoods, including charter and community schools, as well as health systems,3 to serve as hubs for integrated approaches to achieving health communities. That approach combines the conservative emphasis on the importance of nongovernmental institutions with the progressive emphasis on community action. Again, systematic evaluation is needed. 

Hopefully there can be cross-party congressional support agreement on these themes, as McDonough notes has occurred in alternative sentencing. But it is unlikely in the election season that such themes will be seized upon by presidential candidates. In my view, that is probably good, because presidential elections are about differences, not path-breaking agreements. Better, during this election cycle, to foster positive conversations that cause such themes to be taken out of the election debates, so that they will have broad support for enactment after the Election Day dust has settled. 

1. Gawande A. Being Mortal. New York, NY: Metropolitan Books; 2015. 

2. Singh P, Butler SM. Intermediaries in Integrated Approaches to Health and Economic Mobility. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution; 2015. 

3. Butler SM, Grabinsky J, Masi D. Hospitals as Hubs to Create Healthy Communities: Lessons From Washington Adventist Hospital. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution; 2015.

Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared in the American Journal of Public Health