By Sharita Thomas
My internship selection has placed me in the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services office building for Children and Youth in Raleigh. I am working with a legislative study commission, the Child Fatality Task Force, on a rather ambitious action agenda in light of recent General Assembly events.
The laid back appearance of the office initially caused me quite a bit of worry – Sanford life only enhanced my general avoidance of proper sleep, meals and social activities to where any empty space in my daily planner may provoke a small panic attack. It turns out the ‘Task Force’ has approximately 35 members but is a daily one-woman show being casted, performed and directed by Executive Director, Elizabeth Hudgins. Since beginning my internship on May the 14, ‘laid back’ does not seem to be a fitting description of my days thus far. I actually have had some misty-eyed moments reminiscent of my time on the Hill.
I arrived for my first day after only arriving to Durham at 4:00 a.m. by way of a lovely double-decker coach service leaving from D.C. the night before. Looking quite fresh and alert I am sure, I was given my essential orientation instruction. Once I reacquainted myself with Microsoft Office Suite 2003 I met with my boss to go over our summer plan. (I was really hoping to fill in my planner. . .) We went over the agenda as well as discussion of a few projects involving data and surveillance and social determinants of health research. I could not help noticing that there was more excitement in the air than was during my last few visits to the office. It turned out that when the General Assembly convened for its regular “short session,” the Joint Regulatory Reform Committee recommended the elimination of a list of board and commissions. The Child Fatality Allowed Force along with a list of other groups that dealt with crime prevention, climate change, childhood obesity and dropout prevention were up to be cut. Likely because North Carolina has these issues mostly under control. . .wait. . .no, no actually we don’t. We spent a great deal of time fielding phone calls, speaking with members and collecting data to support our existence if need be.
My time here so far feels much like it did to be a legislative intern in D.C.,
minus the frowning faces of the morning Metro Rail riders. I have already pulled data and summaries from close to a hundred sources (for three separate issues/fact sheets: tanning beds, skate boards on the road in Asheville and teen driver safety) only to whittle the information down to 5 overly simplified paragraphs. I have rubbed literal shoulders with lobbyists, state board executives and any other person in my vicinity that thought I was the assistant of someone that had the power to get their organization more money. I have attended advocate and committee meetings, rallies on the lawn of the legislative office buildings, appropriation hearings and meetings to the offices of Representatives and Senators.
The most recent meetings attended involved the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services. On May the 24th I attended the Subcommittee’s budget release and special provisions meeting. Aspects of the budget that are important to the Task Force included: the reliance on the forecasted savings from the dependence of health care managed through Community Care North Carolina, the redirection of funds from private contracts (Planned Parenthood) to local health departments, and the missing funds for the “17P” program and certain Smart Start programs. Luckily, we were able to get crucial funds to be specifically allocated to these 17P and Smart Start by patiently waiting to talk to Representatives. And by talk I mean spew sound bites and statistics. We were assured that the oversight was merely an oversight and nothing more. While the Task Force is not specifically involved with the Planned Parenthood issue, it is a topic that I am quite interested in. Unfortunately, it seems that there was no oversight in the provision that redirects funds from Planned Parenthood.
House Republicans continuously rejected amendments to the budget in order to ensure that Planned Parenthood would no longer receive contracts for services from local health departments. The issue is particularly upsetting for me as I worked in a high-risk perinatal clinic before coming to Duke. The patients that delivered and had Medicaid or no insurance were referred to the local health department for contraceptive services and future family planning. Not surprisingly, we often saw these same patients returning to us, pregnant, in a matter of months. Local health departments are not equipped to provide efficient and effective family planning services. They lack the staff and resources to do so. Appointments for family planning services at a health department in Durham would have you wait at least 3 months for an appointment. It seems that the health and well-being of poor men and women in need of services that could be met by contracts with capable facilities is being sacrificed for a conservative agenda. House Representative Rick Glazier summed the sentiment up best when stating that, “[the budget provision removing health contracts from outside entities] is nothing more than a fig leaf trying to cover the majority’s open hostility to Planned Parenthood.” While I wanted to rally the troops on this issue, the Task Force had its own agenda.
I reconvened to the legislative offices on a rainy May 30th for a hearing on lithium batteries in smoke alarms for rental properties. Armed with fact sheets and costs figures for the rowdy crowd that we assumed we would encounter-apparently there was some battle over this issue when it first appeared. There was no resistance but quite a high demand for more information as most of the members of the General Assembly are landlords.
It seems that the atmosphere surrounding my very spacious cubicle will be anxious for now. I keep hearing how this session of the General Assembly is different- less transparent and unpredictable, and that we will need to be ready to appear at hearings at a moment’s notice.
And how can I be tired of traipsing around legislative buildings (with a purpose of course), passing out fact sheets (and waiting with baited breath as they read, looking for the head nod of approval and fearing the head shake of shame) and being called ‘sweetie pie’ or ‘hun’ by old southern gentlemen in Seersucker suits (it beats being called ‘sugartits’ by drunken anti-Semites).
I appreciate this internship for illuminating my desire to be ‘on the ground’ with the community. I am benefited for my legislative experience and my unbelievable access to major players in local public health. I still have data projects to look forward to (yay! That is a serious and not a sarcastic ‘yay.’ Seriously.) and more conversations with the North Carolina public health community. Next on the list, an equities event featuring Dr. Camara Jones and Dr. Ronnie Bell.