U.S. Senators Tina Smith and Cory Booker Announce Plan to Build Stronger Public Health Workforce to Keep Fighting Pandemic

WASHINGTON, D.C. [05/14/20]—Today, in an effort to solve America’s impending public health workforce shortage and strengthen its response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, U.S. Senators Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) introduced legislation to build a stronger public health infrastructure.  

Right now, America is facing an alarming public health workforce shortage. Local and state health departments have lost nearly a quarter (23 percent) of their workforce since 2008. Public health departments are also facing a looming retirement crisis, with almost a quarter of health department staff currently eligible for retirement and 55 percent of local public health professionals already over age 45. Experts also estimate that nearly half of the public health workforce is considering leaving their organization in the next five years.

The Strengthening the Public Health Workforce Act would reauthorize and improve a program created under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to provide education loan repayment assistance to people who work in a state, local, or Tribal public health department. The program—known as the Public Health Workforce Loan Repayment Program—was authorized from 2010-2015, but it was never funded.

Sens. Smith and Booker said the loan repayment incentive is especially important to public health departments during the current pandemic because a strong public workforce is needed to support critical activities like testing and contact tracing. 

“America needs a public health infrastructure that has the capacity to tackle COVID-19 head on,” said Sen. Smith, a member of the Senate Health Committee. “And looking forward, we need a sustainable workforce that’s ready to address any future public health crisis. But right now we’re facing a workforce shortage that’s stretching many workers so thin that they’re exhausted and overwhelmed. This is not how we should operate. We need more hands on deck. I’m going to fight to move this bill forward.” 

“Public health workers are an integral part of our nation’s health system – and that has never been more true as we respond to and start the recovery from COVID-19,” said Sen. Booker. “Unfortunately, despite the critical role these essential workers play,  their numbers are dwindling –  since 2008, local and state health departments have lost nearly a quarter of their workforce. By strengthening the public health workforce loan repayment program, we can help attract and retain more public health professionals in state, local, and tribal health departments across the country.”

“Health department staff are on the front lines of the coronavirus response, working around the clock to protect all of us. And they are doing so despite workforce cuts and tight budgets that make it difficult to recruit and retain the key talent needed to keep our communities healthy and safe. A federal Public Health Workforce Loan Repayment program is an important investment in strengthening local, state, and tribal health departments across the country. We thank Senators Smith and Booker for introducing this legislation to create a system to help recruit and retain talented professionals to these critical jobs to support the coronavirus response and to strengthen health department capacity in the years to come,” said Lori Tremmel Freeman, MBA, CEO, National Association of County and City Health Officials

“COVID-19 has illustrated the importance of public health workers throughout our state and nation. We appreciate Senator Smith’s leadership in introducing this legislation, which will provide critical support for health departments and improve the health of our communities,” said Richard Scott, Local Public Health Association of Minnesota Chair and Carver County HHS Deputy Division Director. 

“It has been recognized for some time now that the governmental public health workforce is too small and recent events have highlighted the need for public health professionals working to protect our communities.  The proposed Public Health Workforce Loan Repayment program will be an incentive to public health professionals to protect and improve the health of our communities and we appreciate Senator Booker’s support,” said Megan Avallone, President of New Jersey Association of County and City Health Officials and Director of Westfield Regional Health Department.

Specifically, the Strengthening the Public Health Workforce Act:

  • Reauthorizes the Public Health Workforce Loan Repayment Program to provide education loan repayment assistance to eligible individuals who work in a state, local, or Tribal public health department. Under the program, an individual could receive up to $35,000 in repayment assistance for each year of service;
  • Authorizes $200 million for the next five fiscal years for the program, with the expectation that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) would first establish the program in the initial year;
  • Shortens the obligated service time period from at least three years to two consecutive years of service;
  • Expands eligibility requirements to include individuals with degrees in computer science, information science, information systems, information technology, or statistics; and
  • Ensures that at least 50 percent of the program awards are provided to new hires, and that program contracts are equitably distributed between geographic areas and local, state and Tribal health departments.

You can access a summary of the bill here