Commentary: Utah needs champions for the public’s health

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Steven Beach, a registered nurse with the Salt Lake County Health Department, prepares a Hepatitis A vaccination dose at a mobile vaccination clinic setup outside at 500 west and 200 south in Salt Lake City Thursday November 16, 2017. The department is setting up the clinics to address the county's outbreak of Hepatitis A . There have been 66 cases here so far this year, mostly in homeless community.

Our state needs public health champions now more than ever. Utah communities are burdened by the opioid epidemic, affordable housing issues, air pollution and traffic congestion. All of these issues have an impact on health, and the argument has long been made that health should be considered in all policies.
As Utah prepares to elect four representatives and a senator to represent us in Washington D.C., 14 state senators and 75 members of the Utah House of Representatives, it’s time for us to find leaders who can help tackle these problems. We need public health champions who can bring our concerns to Congress, the Statehouse and be hardworking advocates for Utah’s health.
National polls indicate health is the No. 1 issue for most voters in this election. Utah citizens are worried about traffic congestion, a lack of affordable housing and air and water quality. The Utah Department of Health has identified three priorities for improving our health — decreasing obesity and related chronic diseases, reducing prescription drug misuse, abuse and overdose, and, increasing access to mental health and reducing suicide. Nearly 12 percent of Utahn’s lack health insurance. Utah ranks the second lowest nationally for the number of primary care physicians, a measure that indicates a lack of access to preventive and primary care. Utah also ranks in the lowest quartile of nurse-to-population estimates. Compelling research exists to show that more nurses in a community means a healthier community.
No one will argue that these are frivolous concerns. How are we supposed to make sure a candidate will put our health first? Let’s start by asking the right questions before we cast our ballot.
Will your candidate protect and support affordable access to health care? Does this person have a plan to keep our community safe and healthy in the face of a changing climate? Will he/she support funding to fully implement Utah’s health improvement plan? How will your candidate ensure Utah has a well-educated health workforce that’s ready to meet health challenges tomorrow, next year or 10 years from now? What will they do to address any or all of these pressing issues?

If we don’t ask these questions now, we won’t know how our elected officials will vote on issues like stopping the opioid epidemic and improving health insurance when they get to Washington, D.C., or Utah’s capitol. As we say in public health, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Let’s make sure we’re asking the right questions now.
The public’s health runs across party lines. Illness and disease don’t understand political alliances. This isn’t about politics. This election, for Utah, is about protecting our families and communities and planning for a healthier future.
Utah deserves an entire elected delegation of state and federal representatives and senators who will fight for our health. By asking the right questions, we can make health a priority in our state and in Washington, D.C.

Teresa Garrett

Teresa Garrett, a registered nurse with a doctorate in nursing practice from the University of Utah, has been a public health nurse for more 25 years.

Anna Dillingham

Anna Dillingham, who has a master of public health degree from George Washington University, has been striving for high quality public health services for 15 years. Both authors are board members of the Utah Public Health Association.
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