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J Law Med Ethics. 2003 Winter;31(4):672-83.

What is public health legal preparedness?

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Illinois Department of Public Health, USA.


Legal preparedness has gained recognition as a critical component of comprehensive public health preparedness for public health emergencies triggered by infectious disease outbreaks, natural disasters, chemical and radiologic disasters, terrorism and other causes. Public health practitioners and their colleagues in other disciplines can prepare for and respond to such an event effectively only if law is used along with other tools. The same is true for more conventional health threats. At first glance, public health legal preparedness may appear to be only a matter of having the right laws on the books. On closer examination, however, it is as complex as the field of public health practice itself. Public health legal preparedness has at least four core elements: laws (statutes, ordinances, regulations, and implementing measures); the competencies of those who make, implement, and interpret the laws; information critical to those multidisciplinary practitioners; and coordination across sectors and jurisdictions. The process of improving public health legal preparedness has begun in earnest with respect to potentially massive public health emergencies. Elected officials, public health, legal, and law enforcement practitioners, and national security organizations have contributed to initial benchmarks for the core elements. A few gaps in legal preparedness have been identified in the context of exercises, actual public health emergencies, and through more general assessments of public health preparedness conducted by CDC and the Department of Justice. While a strong beginning has been made, this work is incomplete. Redoubled effort is needed to define practical, measurable benchmarks or standards of legal preparedness, to identify and correct shortcomings, and to review findings from regular exercises and actual public health emergencies. There is great value in having this work move forward on two converging tracks, one defined by states and localities acting on their own initiative and the other shaped by the federal government as informed by state and local experience. The TOPOFF and Dark Winter exercises exemplify the grounded, case-based approach that teaches practical lessons about benchmarks, gaps, and steps to improve public health's legal preparedness. It goes without saying that action on both tracks should be taken by collaboratives whose membership includes representatives of the many different communities integral to the design and application of laws that affect the health of the public and the effectiveness of the public health system itself. Consistent with the concept of a public health or population health system with which we began this paper, participants in both tracks should include representatives of non-governmental bodies--community-based organizations, non-profit organizations active in disaster preparedness and response, and others. This paper presents a conceptual and analytic framework those groups may apply, one that is sufficiently broad to serve as an integrating schema across sectors and jurisdictions but also sufficiently flexible to accommodate the unique features of the many community and state public health systems which, together with federal partners, comprise the U.S. public health system, in sum, a framework responsive to the exigencies of our times, faithful to the guiding principles of American federalism, and conductive to a new standard of health protection for all our citizens.

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