Legislation Would Help Ensure Public Health Workers Have Capacity to Meet Demands of Current and Future Public Health Emergencies
Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senators Susan Collins (R-ME), Tina Smith (D-MN), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced bipartisan legislation to reinforce and expand our public health workforce amidst significant shortages. The Strengthening the Public Health Workforce Act would help restore the public health workforce at the state, local, and tribal levels to support the COVID-19 response effort. These measures are particularly urgent given the current state of our public health sector: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is a nationwide shortage of 80,000 public health professionals.
“Our nation’s public health workers are the true heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the severe shortage of these skilled professionals has taken a toll,” said Senator Collins. “As we continue to respond to this persistent pandemic, it is imperative that we take steps to alleviate the many burdens on our public health infrastructure and support the development and expansion of this workforce so that we are better prepared for the next crisis. Reauthorizing and strengthening the bipartisan Public Health Workforce Loan Repayment program would help attract more young people to the field, support our state and local health departments, and preserve access to critical activities like testing and contact tracing.”
“We thank Senators Collins, Smith, Booker, and Murkowski for their advocacy and support, especially during these challenging times. The Strengthening the Public Health Workforce Act will enable small local health departments such as ours to compete for skilled professionals in this very competitive marketplace,” said Patty Hamilton, APRN, Public Health Director, City of Bangor. “The program has the added benefit of addressing student debt as well as helping keep these professionals in the public health field for a multi-year commitment. This program would provide us with an important incentive to entice individuals to the exciting field of public health. Loan repayment along with predictable, sustainable dedicated funds for public health activities would enable us to be more proactive in meeting local emerging needs. We thank Senator Collins and her colleagues for their advocacy and support.”
Since 2008, state and local health departments have lost nearly a quarter of their workforce, representing over 50,000 jobs across the country. Public health departments also face a looming retirement crisis, with almost a quarter of health department staff currently eligible for retirement and 55 percent of local public health professionals already over age 45. It is projected that nearly half of the public health workforce is considering leaving their organization in the next five years. Furthermore, COVID-19 may exacerbate workforce shortages, as over half of public health workers surveyed reported experiencing poor mental health due to the demands of responding to the pandemic.
The Public Health Workforce Loan Repayment Program was created to help bolster public health capacity and reduce workforce shortages. The program provides education loan repayment assistance to eligible individuals in exchange for work in a public health department. While the Public Health Workforce Loan Repayment Program was authorized from 2010 to 2015, it has never been funded or implemented. As a result, public health departments have not been able to benefit from this targeted loan repayment incentive, and they continue to face workforce shortages.
The Senators’ bipartisan Strengthening the Public Health Workforce Act would reauthorize and improve the Public Health Workforce Loan Repayment Program to help expand the public health workforce at the state, local, and tribal levels and support the COVID-19 response effort.
Specifically, the Strengthening the Public Health Workforce Act:
The bill is endorsed by the National Association of County and City Officials (NACCHO).