Editor’s Note: Georges C. Benjamin, M.D. is the executive director of the American Public Health Association. He is also a former secretary of health for the state of Maryland. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Next week, Americans in every state will cast their vote to determine the next Congress of the United States. Polls have shown that health care is one of the top issues they’ll be considering.
And for good reason – new data last month showed that US life expectancy has now declined for three years in a row. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that deaths from drugs, alcohol and suicide are driving the drop. It’s suddenly not so unthinkable that the next generation will live shorter lives than we will – and largely due to preventable deaths.
With health care as a top issue in this election, it’s clear Americans are looking to their representatives in Congress for answers. And the continuing decline in life expectancy is a compelling reason to cast our vote for candidates who will champion policy solutions in Washington that improve the public’s health. But what questions can we ask candidates before Election Day to make sure they actually support doing that?
In my experience, the right questions are about prevention. A senator or representative who champions public health believes in investing in long-term solutions. It’s easy to rant and rave about a health issue, but the best leaders come to the table with upstream solutions that address the root of the problem. Think improved vaccine coverage to stop disease, more opportunities for a community to exercise and prevent chronic disease, and expanded breastfeeding accommodations for constituent moms and babies.
Prevention is the best public health tool we have, but investment in prevention programs is not keeping pace with needs. We need lawmakers who will advocate for strong funding levels for public health programs and agencies.
We also need to know whether candidates plan to protect the Affordable Care Act, which has been under constant threat since it was enacted. Access to health care is not a partisan issue. The Affordable Care Act created the Prevention and Public Health Fund to help stop disease before it starts and guarantees health coverage to millions more Americans than ever. If we hope to advance public health, protecting the ACA and continuing to build upon its achievements will need to be a priority for the next Congress.
The way a candidate plans to support families, women and children while in office is also a key part of public health. Congress can advance women’s health by supporting access to a full range of reproductive health services, and help working families by supporting paid family and medical leave. Will your candidate champion affordable housing and a living wage? If a candidate isn’t willing to support all these policies, ask what the long-term effect would be on your community if parents can’t earn enough to pay the rent and women can’t plan a family on their terms.
Compounding our existing health challenges is climate change. We need to make sure our communities have the resources they need to address the exponential harm that climate change has on our health and will have on the health of future generations. According to the CDC, climate change poses dangers like increased allergies and asthma, changes in vector-borne diseases like malaria, Lyme disease and the Zika virus, increased injuries and deaths from extreme weather, degradation of our supplies of clean air and fresh water and a host of other climate-related diseases. Candidates should understand and be prepared to address these threats.
Don’t let your questions stop there. Ask about a candidate’s position on preventing further harm from the opioid crisis and on funding of gun violence research. If they can’t answer these questions now, how are we supposed to know how they’ll vote on these issues when they’re sitting in Congress?
As you consider your candidates, ask who will support a public health system that works for you and your community. If you’re not sure where to start, ask them these important questions that the American Public Health Association has assembled about public health for candidates. Our Public Health on the Ballot resources, including a questionnaire you can bring to campaign events, and an online quiz, can help you make sure you have the answers you need before Election Day.
Finding the right candidate for your community’s health starts with simply asking the right questions, and now is the time to ask.