Open Access Government examines how the U.S. is building a stronger foundation for a healthier future – one in which every American can attain their full health and wellness potential
“At the end of 2022, HHS alongside the Office of Minority Health (OMH) announced more than $3 million in grants to eight organisations for a new initiative to demonstrate policy effectiveness to promote Black youth mental health (BYMH). This three-year initiative will help identify health and wellness policies that are successful in improving BYMH, including suicide prevention.”
Assistant Secretary of Health Admiral Rachel L. Levine MD, works for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to improve the health and wellness of all Americans, using her position and visibility to address a variety of inequities in healthcare while also serving as a role model for the LGBTQ+ community, particularly young people. Before assuming her federal role, Levine commented on the importance of inclusivity and the negative impacts of harassment based on gender identity. “We all need to foster that spirit of acceptance and welcoming to LGBTQ individuals and celebrate the wonderful diversity of our commonwealth. Our children are watching. To all LGBTQ young people, it is OK to be you.”
Levine is also co-chair of the HHS Health Disparities Council, working more specifically to tackle health inequities for LGBTQ+ youth, people of colour, older people, and immigrants.
This support for diversity is vital for HHS to achieve their vision of highlighting and minimising disparities in health and wellness. 2022 marked several breakthroughs for the department in this area, including the publication of the Federal Plan for Equitable Long-Term Recovery and Resilience (ELTRR). This plan lays out an approach to give communities equitable access to the federal resources they need, aspiring to eliminate disparities and achieve equity for all people and communities. Its recommendations are designed to address inequity while improving conditions toward thriving for all.
As such, specific populations that historically have been marginalised are noted in relation to pertinent recommendations, intended as primary beneficiaries of the recommended changes based on known inequities; however, specific populations that historically have been marginalised are not the only groups who will potentially benefit from the implementation of these recommendations.
At the end of 2022, HHS alongside the Office of Minority Health (OMH) announced more than $3 million in grants to eight organisations for a new initiative to demonstrate policy effectiveness to promote Black youth mental health (BYMH). This three-year initiative will help identify health and wellness policies that are successful in improving BYMH, including suicide prevention.
Updating medical standards for inclusivity
Another landmark example of this dedication took place in December 2022, when the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) a uniformed service of the HHS, publicly announced the changing of its medical standards to accept future applicants living with chronic hepatitis B and Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). These conditions were previously medically disqualifying, but in recent years, treatments have made both HIV and hepatitis B manageable chronic conditions, similar to hypertension and hyperlipidemia. Applicants meeting the new medical accession standards for these conditions may now be able to serve their country in uniform as a Public Health Service officer, creating a fairer and more accessible platform.
Admiral Rachel Levine stated; “as we recognise World AIDS Day and the progress made, I am honoured to be a part of a change much bigger than our service. By changing our medical accession standards to reflect the latest evidence, we show the world that we are putting science first. I am proud of the USPHS Commissioned Corps for breaking barriers to help create a future where people are encouraged and able to follow their dreams.”
The white paper on substance use and harms
Earlier in 2022, Levine issued a joint statement alongside Chief Public Health Officer of Canada, Dr Theresa Tam on the release of a white paper on substance use and harms – a prominent global public health issue that extends beyond North America.
For many countries, preventing substance use harms has been a longstanding challenge – one made more challenging in the context of a global pandemic. During the COVID-19 pandemic, both Canada and the U.S. experienced an increase in rates of substance use harms and deaths beyond already high pre-pandemic levels. This can be attributed, in part, to a decrease in access to support and services for people who use substances at the onset of the pandemic.
In the joint statement, Levine and Tam commented that their collaboration on this white paper “demonstrates our continued commitment to address the overdose crisis together so people in our respective countries can live to their full potential.”
“Increasing feelings of isolation, stress, and anxiety and an increase in the toxicity of the drug supply contributed to higher rates of deaths in both countries. Tracking and understanding trends in substance use can help guide policies and programmes to reduce harm and save lives,” commented Tam and Levine.
It is clear that education, training, and achieving equity in healthcare must continue to be prioritised by HHS to reduce medical disparities and support marginalised communities. Admiral Rachel Levine is continuing to use her position to address a variety of inequalities in healthcare, and in May 2021, HHS updated its interpretation and enforcement of prohibitions against discrimination in the Affordable Care Act to exclude discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Levine stated; “no one should be discriminated against when seeking medical services because of who they are.”