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The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is a major achievement in improving access to health care services. However, evidence indicates that the nation could achieve greater improvements in health outcomes, at a lower cost, by shifting its focus to public health. By focusing nearly exclusively on health care, policy makers have chronically starved public health of adequate and stable funding and political support. The lack of support for public health is exacerbated by the fact that health care and public health are generally conceptualized, organized, and funded as two separate systems. In order to maximize gains in health status and to spend scarce health resources most effectively, health care and public health should be treated as two interactive parts of a single, unified health system.

The core purpose of health reform ought to be the improvement of the population’s health. We propose five criteria that would significantly advance this goal: prevention and wellness, human resources, a strong and sustainable health infrastructure, robust performance measurement, and reduction of health disparities. Although the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act includes provisions addressing these criteria, population health is not a central focus of the reform.

In order to guide health reform implementation and to inform future health reform efforts, we offer three major policy reforms: changing the environment to incentivize healthy behavioral choices, strengthening the public health infrastructure at the state and local levels, and developing a health-in-all policies strategy that would engage multiple agencies in improving health incomes. Adopting these reforms would facilitate integration and dramatically improve the population’s health, particularly when compared to the health gains likely to be realized from a continued focus on access to health care services.

Publication Citation

Pennsylvania Law Review (Forthcoming, 2011)