Students see “behind the veil” of public health policy

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Hayley Sayrs, a Master of Public Health student studying public policy at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, traveled to Sacramento with her classmates to witness the interplay between politics and health. 

She spoke with Larissa Puro in the Department of Preventive Medicine.

Hayley Sayrs, MPH student. Photographer: Fareed John Dibazar

It’s the ultimate field trip for public health policy students: visiting the State Capitol to meet with lawmakers.

Michael Cousineau, PhD, professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, leads the trip each year to attend the Insured the Uninsured Project conference in Sacramento. His course on U.S. health policy and politics examines the intersection of political and health systems to more fully understand solutions to reduce disparities and improve access to care.

Fittingly, the conference, which took place in early February this year—brings policymakers, policy experts, researchers, advocates and care providers together to focus on advancing health reform.

My classmates, including students from USC’s occupational therapy PhD, MPH/MD and Master of Public Health Policy programs, and I sat down with state legislators including Sen. Holly Mitchell and Sen. Robert Hertzberg, and a representative from Assembly Member Laura Friedman’s office. Hertzberg and Friedman have co-authored key water policy legislation for California, especially as it pertains to drought mitigation and conservation in light of climate change.

Fareed John Dibazar, my MPH policy classmate, spoke with Assembly Member Joaquin Arambula, one of the chief authors of a legislative effort to extend healthcare coverage to everyone in California regardless of immigration status.

“In speaking with members in the senate it was truly encouraging to see both sides of the aisle working to expand and scale healthcare for all Californians,” Dibazar said. “One Republican legislator made a particularly encouraging remark that the caucus was seeking ‘targeted repair’ of any Affordable Care Act deficiencies rather than wholesale repeal.”

Topics ranged from affordable housing and end-of-life care to the human health consequences of climate change and its relationship with water policy across the state. A major theme throughout the trip was discussion of the current sentiment of the federal administration, which has been to repeal or roll back the Affordable Care Act. Despite severe budget cuts and shorter enrollment periods, overall enrollment was relatively stable, I learned—however, the individual mandate tax was repealed and health providers are uncertain about future reforms, so many people saw their premiums begin to rise again.

The trip showed us the direct impact of politics on health (Attorney General Xavier Becerra was the conference’s keynote speaker.) — and the inextricable link between our political and health care systems. Becerra reminded us all how lucky we are to be in California, where we have vertical alignment on values such as healthcare for all that begins with Gov. Gavin Newsom and his push towards single-payer health care — and doing so cost-effectively, which can be measured in life-years gained or life-years without disability or disease.

Throughout our few days in Sacramento, we spoke with researchers, providers, health clinic managers, members of nongovernmental organizations and state legislators. The biggest takeaways? Seeing behind the veil of the political process, meeting one-on-one with representatives and discussing issues that we are deeply passionate about. I am increasingly realizing my engagement with politics should be ongoing and not simply during elections.

This has been a highlight of my MPH experience and has truly inspired me to run for office one day!

— Hayley Sayrs, Master of Public Health candidate

Photos courtesy of Fareed John Dibazar