A Tour of the Department of Health and Human Services

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In 1979, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) was separated into two cabinet-level agencies, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Education. It is comprised of 11 operating divisions which oversee “the health and well-being of all Americans” by supporting public health, medical, and social services. It is currently run by Secretary Alex Azar, who previously worked in the private sector at the pharmaceutical behemoth Eli Lilly and the public sector as General Counsel and then Deputy Secretary at HHS during the George W. Bush Administration. Let’s take a [very brief] tour of the divisions that most impact medical professionals and their patients on a frequent basis.

  • The Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality (AHRQ) aims to improve the accessibility, safety, quality, equitability, and affordability of health care through the development of tools and data for Americans, health care professionals, and policy makers to make informed health decisions. Patient safety became a high priority for AHRQ after the publication of the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) seminal report “To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System.”
  • The Assistant Secretary for Health (ASH) oversees 12 core public health offices, 10 regional health offices, and 10 presidential and secretarial advisory committees.
  • The Assistant Secretary of Preparedness & Response (ASPR) is responsible for the medical and public health preparedness for, response to, and recovery from disasters and public health emergencies.
  • The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) keeps the public safe from health threats by tracking and controlling disease outbreaks; ensuring the safety of our food and water; and helping people avoid common, preventable conditions like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and stroke. The CDC also responds to health emergencies, develops vaccines, and collects and analyzes data to determine health threats to different populations.
  • The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid (CMS) is responsible for oversight of Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), the Marketplace, and related health care quality metrics.
  • The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) ensures food safety and the safety and effectiveness of medical devices, biological products, and human and veterinary drugs. It is also responsible for regulating electronic products that emit radiation, as well as the manufacturing, marketing, and distribution of tobacco products.
  • The Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA) is tasked with improving health care for individuals who are geographically isolated, economically or medically vulnerable. HRSA’s 90-plus programs and more than 3,000 grantees support tens of millions of Americans in need of high quality primary care, individuals living with HIV/AIDS, pregnant women, and mothers. It supports the training of health care professionals and sends them to high need areas. HRSA oversees organ, bone marrow, and cord blood donation; compensates individuals harmed by vaccinations; and maintains databases of medical malpractice, fraud, waste, and abuse.
  • The Indian Health Service (IHS) provides health care services to American Indians and Alaskan Natives. The provision of these services is based on Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, which created a government-to-government relationship between the U.S government and Indian Tribes.
  • The National Institutes of Health (NIH) supports research about living systems and the application of knowledge to “enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability.”
  • The Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) improves access and reduces barriers to high quality, effective programs for individuals suffering from mental health conditions and substance abuse.

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