An article by Julia Costich, MPA, JD, PhD, and Dana Patton, PhD, in the October 2012 edition of the American Journal of Public Health reveals the tip of the iceberg on a highly discussed and yet insufficiently researched topic: the legal infrastructure. While the team reports a significant impact of the legal infrastructure of local health departments on population health outcomes, the paper also raises questions regarding the role of law more generally in the functioning of health departments.
While we “see” law all the time in action, we rarely “see” law as an important factor influencing the way health agencies operate. Sure, we understand law as a way to drive the behavior of individuals by regulating sugar-sweetened beverages or prohibiting texting while driving or preventing smoking in indoor spaces — this is called interventional law — but there is a lesser-known cousin, infrastructural law, that desperately needs our attention.
While public health officials, policy-makers, advocates and academics regularly discuss the funding and organization of health departments at both the state and local levels, they less often step back to think about what is driving the process — law. As states are facing significant fiscal crisis, funds are a major concern, but it is important to remember that appropriations are made through law. Additionally, in recent years, during natural disasters such as hurricanes in the south and major floods in New England, there were questions in the news about which agencies should be doing what and when. The authority for a health department to act and/or to act in concert with another agency is derived from law.