Monday, April 12, 2010
By Edwin Mora

( – Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius says President Obama “expects” all cabinet departments to leverage their resources in support of public health, a move she suggested is unprecedented.

“One of the things that’s happened in this administration, which I would suggest has not really happened in the past, is that the president has made it very clear to all of us at the cabinet level that while health may be directly in the portfolio of Health and Human Services, he expects all of the cabinet officers to spend some time figuring out ways that we can leverage their assets and work on this issue,” said Sebelius in an April 8 speech on Capitol Hill.

“Having this multi-agency focus on these [health] initiatives I think is an enormously important way to not only leverage our assets, but actually to look at the whole community strategy, which I think is so very important,” she added.

Sebelius explained that the Department of Transportation (DOT) can operate as a “health agency" by funding bike trails for communities, among other things.

“Transportation, you wouldn’t necessarily think that the Department of Transportation is a public health agency, but actually they have a lot to do with community health and public health because they have the funds for bike trails and walking paths and sidewalks and green space,” explained Sebelius.

In addition, the HHS secretary emphasized that cabinet-level departments are working together in some cases. For example, she noted that Health and Human Services is currently working with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to bring mental and physical health services to the homeless.

“We are now collaborating with HUD to make sure that when a housing project is funded, when vouchers are given for housing initiatives at the local level, that the mental health service folks and the physical health service folks are also involved in that…because that’s really the way that you actually move people from homelessness into some sort of permanent housing,” said Sebelius.

“The secretary of housing does not have the lever to encourage or mandate that the service folks be at the table, but we do,” she added.

Sebelius also talked about the Agriculture Department’s “huge role” in improving public health through the school lunch program.

“The Department of Agriculture has a huge role to play in school-based health and wellness since they actually purchase the commodities used for school breakfast and lunch,” said Sebelius.

“We know that kids consume 80 percent of their calories out of the house, so paying attention to actually what is being served in schools, the kind of vending machines that are in school, what’s coming out of those vending machines, and beginning to drive a different portfolio is part of this initiative.”

The Department of Education is in the process of upgrading public health by re-introducing physical education to students’ curriculum, Sebelius said.

In her speech last week, Sebelius mentioned only five of the 15 cabinet-level departments. She did not mention the Interior Department, but Frank Quimby, a spokesman for that department, talked to about Interior’s role in supporting public health.

“Our land management agencies administer public lands and facilities, including parks, wildlife refuges, national monuments and other recreational areas that promote public health by providing all Americans with clean, healthy, outdoor areas for many types of physical exercise and recreation, including boating, walking, running, hiking, climbing, canoeing, swimming, hunting and fishing,” said Quimby.

“We also support health and welfare programs for the 2 million American Indians and Alaska natives, promoting their health through hundreds of tribal health, safety, education programs,” he added.