Title: Senior Program Analyst; Public Health Preparedness, Law, and Ethics; National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO)
Education: JD, University of Pittsburgh School of Law; MPH, Health Policy and Management, University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health
Public Health Law News (PHLN):Please describe your career path and what drew you to public health law.
Mwaungulu:Sure! When I started working after undergrad, I knew I wanted to be in the world of health; however, my professional experiences following my education led me to realize that I wanted to be in public health law. I started out working for a company that created conferences for professionals in the healthcare world. My role was to identify conference topics and the subject matter experts who would be speaking at these events. After putting on conferences on topics such as claims processing, hospital supply tracking, and sleep centers, I was able to find a healthcare-related position with a different company focused on providing industry research to hospitals. While I was in that position, I started to think about the impacts of law and policy on various industries and decided to move on to an association focused on creating industry-developed standards for telecommunications. It was while I was in that position that things clicked, and my vision for a career path became clearer as I realized the many ways that law affects population health. From there I decided to go back to graduate school and pursue a dual degree in law and public health, thus allowing me to find a position here at NACCHO, where I’ve been able to focus my efforts on addressing the connection between law and public health from the local perspective.
PHLN:What is NACCHO?
Mwaungulu:NACCHO stands for the National Association of County and City Health Officials. It’s a member organization focused on serving the needs of the nearly 3,000 local health departments spread across the United States. NACCHO helps lead local health departments through the complex issues that confront them, partners with local health departments and other organizations to address public health concerns, and acts as the unified voice of local health departments when interacting with outside organizations and governmental entities.
PHLN:How does public health law relate to NACCHO’s work? Why is public health law of particular importance to local governments?
Mwaungulu:NACCHO frequently considers how the law and legal interventions can be incorporated into its wide array of programmatic activities. As the law plays a role in almost every aspect of the work done by government agencies, including local health departments, improving the legal knowledge of a public health practitioner at the local level can have a large impact on his or her ability to effectively work for the community. Incorporating legal considerations and strategies into the work we do can make our tools that much more effective for our members.
PHLN:Please describe your role at NACCHO.
Mwaungulu:As a senior program analyst, I manage a variety of programs and projects that support local health departments seeking to improve their capabilities in public health practice and increase their capacity to serve their communities. My work typically falls within the categories of public health preparedness, law, and ethics.
PHLN:It sounds as if you and your team provide a lot of infrastructure, research, and project support for local jurisdictions. What kinds of public health law projects are you working on currently?
Mwaungulu:Recently, a great deal of my time has been focused on administrative preparedness at the local level. I have also been focused on issues related to opioids, legalized cannabis, the intersection between law and ethics, and more.
PHLN:What is the NACCHO Legal Workgroup, and how does it support local public health entities?
Mwaungulu:The NACCHO Legal Workgroup is a forum that gives local health officials and attorneys from local health departments the opportunity to discuss the legal and policy issues they face on a day-to-day basis. Through these conversations, participants can work with their peers to identify potential policy and legal strategies for addressing their concerns and recognize potential legal problems that could impact their communities. We are looking for opportunities to expand this group’s scope of activities to allow for an increased ability to provide on-demand peer-to-peer technical assistance to the public health community.
PHLN:How does having a network of local public health department attorneys improve public health outcomes?
Mwaungulu:Since the law plays such an important role in the practice of public health at the local level, having a network of local public health attorneys allows NACCHO and its members to be better able to anticipate and react to public health issues that might arise at the local level, anticipate new issues that might arise across the country, and identify potentially useful solutions and legal interventions that are informed by some of the foremost minds in local public health practice. Each one of these outputs can positively influence local activities and make a real impact on community health.
PHLN:You mentioned that you are working on NACCHO’s opioid response activities. What challenges are local jurisdictions facing with regard to the opioid crisis? How are the challenges different from those faced at the national or state levels?
Mwaungulu:As the boots on the ground, local health departments have the most experience working with the people most affected by the ongoing opioid abuse crisis. In the normal course of their work, local health departments need to be able to conduct activities such as containing opioid-abuse outbreaks, addressing rises in bloodborne infectious disease associated with injection drug use in communities, and monitoring opioid use data—all while still serving other aspects of their community’s health. Additionally, local health departments are in the unique position to bring partners, such as emergency management and law enforcement, together across the spectrum to find solutions to this multifaceted and complex crisis.
PHLN:What is administrative preparedness, and how does it relate to local public health practice?
Mwaungulu:Administrative preparedness is the process of ensuring that the fiscal, legal, and administrative authorities and practices that govern funding, procurement, contracting, and hiring are appropriately integrated into all stages of emergency preparedness and response. The goal of administrative preparedness is to remove administrative barriers that can prevent timely response activities. A deficiency in administrative preparedness can delay acquisition of goods and services, hiring or assignment of response personnel, disposition of emergency funds, and legal determinations needed to implement protective health measures.
PHLN:What can local health entities do to improve their administrative preparedness?
Mwaungulu:Local health departments can take on a number of activities to improve their administrative preparedness. We’ve found that incorporating administrative staff in preparedness planning activities, including exercises, is one of the most impactful strategies that locals can use to improve their administrative preparedness. By taking this course of action, local health departments can increase the familiarity and cohesion between preparedness staffs and their non-preparedness colleagues who could be involved in a public health response. It can also help them improve the general knowledge about changes in law or policy that occur following the declaration of an emergency.
Individuals can also improve their administrative preparedness capabilities by reviewing tools created by NACCHO and its partners, which are in the administrative preparedness toolkit in the NACCHO Toolbox. This toolkit contains items developed by NACCHO, our partners, and local health departments that offer guidance on how to address areas of administrative preparedness, including incorporating administrative preparedness into exercises, workforce mobilization, personnel and procurement, reporting practices, and more.
PHLN:How can interested individuals and jurisdictions learn more about public health law and policy at NACCHO?
Mwaungulu:Folks interested in learning more about the law and policy work at NACCHO can find additional information at our website, www.naccho.org. The site provides access to our public health law programmatic page, our policy and advocacy pages, and the aforementioned NACCHO Toolbox. Folks may also directly reach out to NACCHO’s public health law program by sending an email to PHLaw@naccho.org.
PHLN:Have you read any good books lately?
Mwaungulu:I’ve been on a nonfiction tear recently, having finished “Deep Work,” by Cal Newport, and soon to start “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise,” by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool.
PHLN:What would you be doing if you weren’t working in local public health law?
Mwaungulu:Good question! I’m not sure, but I’d probably be practicing in health law, though I’ve also been told that I would make a good teacher.
PHLN:Do you have any hobbies?
Mwaungulu:Watching movies, playing trivia games, staying physically active, and catching up on old episodes of Frasier with my wife Carly and our cat Mango.