Public Health



Public health promotes and protects the health of people and the communities in which they live, learn, work, and play. Strategies to improve the public’s health are multifaceted and involve multiple entities, including federal and state governments, health providers, faith- and community-based organizations, and individuals. Examples of strategies to protect and promote public health include: preventing disease and disability; monitoring and containing communicable disease outbreaks; promoting health through sound nutrition, exercise, and healthy behaviors; ensuring air and water quality and food safety; preventing injuries and violence; ensuring access to safe and stable affordable housing; protecting the health and safety of workers; collecting data for public health surveillance purposes; and conducting public health research and education.

Preventive and screening services—despite near-universal coverage by Medicare, all older Americans underuse preventive and screening services. In addition, there are significant racial and ethnic disparities in their use, regardless of income and health insurance status. Screening for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases is particularly important among older adults because it is estimated that more than half of individuals living with HIV virus in the future will be age 50 and older.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) eliminated cost-sharing for most private and publicly funded preventive and screening services. Still, cost barriers to their use persist. For example, providers’ use of inappropriate medical coding can result in a person being wrongfully exposed to cost-sharing for an exempt preventive or screening service. In addition, Medicare beneficiaries who receive certain recommended vaccines through Medicare Part D (the prescription drug program) are exposed to cost-sharing.

Medicare beneficiaries can also be exposed to cost-sharing for an exempt screening if the service is reclassified as a diagnostic service when an abnormality is found. For example, under current Medicare law, a routine screening colonoscopy does not require cost-sharing, but if a polyp is found the screening is recharacterized as a diagnostic test and cost-sharing is then required.

Finally, Medicare beneficiaries can be required to pay cost-sharing (but not deductibles) for services associated with the receipt of a screening service, such as charges for anesthesia given during a routine screening colonoscopy.

The persistence of cost barriers to screening services may ultimately result in more costs to Medicare when preventable conditions later emerge and require expensive treatments.

Public health initiatives in the Affordable Care Act—the ACA contains provisions requiring the Department of Health and Human Services to implement several public health activities. They include:

  • conducting a national public-private campaign aimed at raising awareness of activities that prevent chronic disease and promote health;
  • maintaining a website with evidence-based information on health promotion and disease prevention, and with an online tool to help individuals determine their risk for specific diseases and offer them customized advice;
  • providing guidance to states and health care providers regarding prevention and obesity-related services available to Medicaid beneficiaries;
  • developing a plan promoting healthy lifestyles and self-management of chronic diseases for Medicare beneficiaries, and
  • establishing a National Prevention, Health Promotion, and Public Health Council to develop a national prevention and health promotion strategy and to provide recommendations to the president and Congress about pressing health issues.

The ACA requires the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to:

  • establish and implement a science-based national media campaign on health promotion and disease prevention, and
  • fund state and local pilot programs to improve the health of people age 55–64 through community-based public health interventions.

The ACA also requires the Government Accountability Office to conduct a study on how often Medicare beneficiaries age 65 and older receive recommended vaccines covered under Medicare Part D, and to make recommendations for increasing immunization rates among Medicare beneficiaries.

Additional public health provisions of the ACA include:

  • mandating investments in state, territorial, and local public-health infrastructure;
  • providing grants to implement recommended services;
  • eliminating cost-sharing for certain preventive services and health screenings in Medicare and private health insurance;
  • providing enhanced federal funding for states that choose to eliminate Medicaid cost-sharing for certain preventive services—including screenings;
  • creating Community Transformation Grants to promote individual and community health and reduce disparities;
  • creating a new Prevention and Public Health Fund designed to expand and sustain the infrastructure needed to prevent disease, detect it early, and manage conditions before they become severe—the goals are to increase the national investment in prevention and public health, to improve health, and to enhance health care quality. The fund started in 2010 with $500 million. Its appropriations were scheduled to increase each year in order to reach $2 billion by 2015. However, because of federal legislation in 2012, the fund will not reach $2 billion until 2022 at the earliest;
  • creating a demonstration program that will make grants available to state Medicaid programs to test the use of evidence-based incentives for Medicaid beneficiaries to prevent chronic diseases; and
  • requiring restaurants, retail food establishments, and vending machine operations with 20 or more locations to post calorie content on menus and menu boards, and to offer accessible nutritional information to customers.

The ACA also established an annual wellness visit for Medicare beneficiaries that includes a personalized prevention plan.

Climate change and public health—public health challenges resulting from climate change include greater exposure to unsafe temperatures, increases in severe weather events, harm to water supplies, and increased vector-borne disease. Vulnerable populations such as communities of racial and ethnic groups that have experienced discrimination, older adults, low-income individuals, and people with chronic illnesses bear the greatest burden of injury, disease, and death related to climate change. Climate change also may adversely impact people with physical and cognitive impairments. A 2010 AARP Public Policy Institute study, Affordable Home Energy and Health: Making the Connections, notes that for many older adults, even moderate temperature changes can lead to adverse health outcomes.

Central air-conditioning and home heating are important aspects of mitigating the health effects of fluctuations in climate. Therefore it is important to ensure that older adults, especially those who are most vulnerable, have continued access to affordable home energy. One federal program that helps low-income individuals pay their energy costs is the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

Policies and programs to address the health threats posed by climate change and high home energy costs can complement existing efforts in health and long-term care to improve patient health status, reduce the economic cost of avoidable health care services, and facilitate independent living.

Public Health: Policy

Public health

In this policy: FederalLocalState

Federal, state and local governments should work together to develop, fund, implement, and evaluate strategies to improve and protect the public’s health, and support policies that promote healthy behaviors and consumer engagement, provide incentives for people to engage in those behaviors, and strengthen the physical infrastructure that supports such health-promoting behaviors.

Public health officials at all levels of government should coordinate their efforts.

Governments should call national attention to public health issues, promote the application of scientific knowledge to policymaking, support the collection and analysis of health data, and strengthen state and local capacity to deliver public health services.

Sound public health strategies for protection and promotion, disease prevention, and intervention should be based on evidence and should have proven efficacy. Costs and benefits should be considered, but should not be determinative. In addition to infrastructure development (such as laboratory capacity, provider education, and surveillance capacity), federal, state, and local strategies to improve the public’s health should focus on broad-based community interventions such as promotion of healthy lifestyles, prevention of disease and disability, research and education, epidemiological work, water treatment, and sewage disposal.

Public health workforce

In this policy: FederalLocalState

workforce development. Such efforts should include strategies to ensure the diversity of the workforce.


In this policy: FederalLocalState

The federal government should honor its commitment to ensuring the public’s health by refraining from further cuts to the Prevention and Public Health Fund. The federal government should appropriately fund the Prevention and Public Health Fund.

Financial resources dedicated to activities that protect the public’s health should be increased. The federal and state governments should:

  • increase funding for public health activities at the national, state, and local levels for enforcement of public health, environmental, and safety standards; for research; and for public and professional health education;
  • direct sufficient financial and technological resources toward solving environmental problems and work cooperatively with the private sector to address environmental concerns;
  • direct sufficient financial and technological resources toward the timely development and manufacture of safe, effective vaccines—during vaccine shortages the federal and state governments should not adopt policies that allocate vaccines solely on the basis of age;
  • provide financial support for research into effective strategies to protect the public from biological assaults; and
  • provide funding to ensure that key public- and private-sector health care personnel are adequately prepared to respond to public health crises relevant to their areas of practice.

Cost-sharing for Medicare preventive services and screenings

In both public and private insurance sectors, the federal government should take the lead in addressing medical coding issues that lead to individuals’ wrongful exposure to cost-sharing for exempt preventive and screening services.

The federal government should eliminate the requirement that when an abnormality is found on a routine screening (e.g., a colonoscopy) the test is then considered a diagnostic procedure to which cost-sharing applies.

The federal government should require providers to alert beneficiaries to any attendant cost-sharing obligations they might incur for screenings rated A or B by the US Preventive Services Task Force; this information should be provided before the screening.

Health Disparities in the use of prevention and screenings

In this policy: FederalLocalState

All levels of government should identify disparities in the use of prevention and screening services in both public- and private-sector health insurance programs; officials should identify and implement strategies to eliminate them.

State option to eliminate cost-sharing for prevention

In this policy: State

State Medicaid programs should elect the option to make certain preventive and screening services available to beneficiaries without any cost-sharing obligation.

Pollution control

In this policy: FederalState

Public agencies should take specific and effective steps to control all forms of pollution (including biological and chemical agents) that threaten health, safety, and quality of life.

Emergency and crisis planning

In this policy: FederalLocalState

Governments should work collaboratively to identify, develop, fund, and implement timely, effective response plans for national, state, and local public health crises.

Governments should develop strategies designed to meet the health care needs of people affected by catastrophic events (e.g., hurricanes, avian influenza, West Nile virus). Such strategies should, at a minimum, finance health care for the uninsured for a reasonable period of time, and should ensure the availability and accessibility of needed services. The federal government should require all states to develop comprehensive disaster plans designed to adequately protect the health and welfare of vulnerable populations such as older adults and people with disabilities during a public health crisis.


In this policy: FederalState

Federal and state governments should support research that identifies the effects of health-promoting behaviors on public health (e.g., the impact of exercise on cardiovascular and cognitive health), and should fund cost-benefit research on health-promoting behaviors with regard to both the public and private sectors (e.g., the cost to employers of workers’ inactivity).

Communicable diseases

In this policy: FederalState

Health care providers and individuals should be educated about behavioral risk factors for contracting and spreading serious communicable diseases such as tuberculosis, hepatitis, and HIV/AIDS. Health providers should recognize the importance of taking sexual histories and discuss HIV/STD prevention with patients age 50 and older. Programs should teach all individuals who know or have reason to believe that they may be infected to protect others from infection, and to advise those whom they know to be at risk to seek testing. The outcome of such tests must be confidential, consistent with public health responsibilities, and subject to the requirements of confidentiality standards.

Smoking bans

In this policy: FederalState

Federal and state governments should enact legislation banning smoking in nonresidential public buildings, on public transportation, and in restaurants.

Tobacco settlements

In this policy: FederalState

Preference for allocating government revenues from tobacco company settlements should be given to programs designed to improve public health, including Medicaid and Medicare, antismoking and smoking-cessation programs, and efforts to expand access to long-term care and other health care services. Tobacco settlement funds should not replace existing federal or state funding in these areas.

To promote government accountability, states should develop a public process for deciding how tobacco settlement funds should be spent and for disclosing annually how they are spent. The disclosure method should be designed to bring the information to the attention of the general public.

State governments should ensure that their public health infrastructures are adequate, strong, and sustainable over the long term before they use tobacco settlement funds to balance state budgets.

Planning for climate change

In this policy: FederalLocalState

In planning to prevent and mitigate the potentially adverse health effects of climate change on older people, federal, state, and local governments should:

  • expand categorical eligibility for LIHEAP, weatherization services, and other affordable energy programs in order to target groups identified as most at risk of adverse health outcomes—possible participants can be identified through, for example, eligibility for state Medicaid waiver programs and for the Medicare Part D Low-Income Subsidy (see more about Low Income Energy Assistance Programs);
  • include referrals for LIHEAP, weatherization, and other affordable energy programs;
  • support education and outreach efforts to increase awareness—both within the health care community and among older adults, their families, and caregivers—of resources that can help people maintain access to healthy and comfortable temperatures;
  • give priority to in-home repair or modification programs that serve medically frail participants (such as under a state Medicaid waiver) so they can have access to cost-effective energy efficiency measures that protect health and safety, such as special coatings for flat-roofed row houses that lower indoor temperatures in summer (learn more); and
  • identify and implement best practices for communicating with the public—especially older adults, their families, and their caregivers—about the risks of heat waves and cold temperatures, links between temperature and health, and the most effective prevention, education, and response efforts.