By Rose Hoban

Uncertainty was on everyone’s minds at Thursday’s annual meeting of North Carolina local health directors.

As Pres. Barack Obama leaves office and Donald Trump takes his place, the meeting was filled with state and local officials who shrugged their shoulders and said “I don’t know” in response to many questions about what’s to come.

picture of Mike Fraser with a big smile
Association of State and Territorial Health Officers head Mike Fraser said that despite the uncertainty facing the public health community, he felt optimistic that leaders could find ways to thrive. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

That point was driven home by keynote speaker Mike Fraser, head of the national Association of State and Territorial Health Officers, who told the group that so much uncertainty called for leadership.

“We need to know that we’ve got each others’ back,” Fraser told the standing room only audience. “Leadership is about vision setting and motivating others to share that vision as their own.”

He said that with uncertainty about the future of the Affordable Care Act and the hundreds of millions of dollars of public health funding contained within the bill, uncertainty about funding for Medicaid programs and uncertainty about who would lead state and federal health care institutions, public health leaders need to be focused on their vision for a healthy North Carolina.

Shows the two men sitting at a lunch table, smiling for a photo.
Gov. Roy Cooper shares a photo with Division of Public Health legal affairs chief Chris Hoke. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“Your hardest job this year is going to be motivating the people you work with to keep on doing the work,” Fraser said.

Even Gov. Roy Cooper, who joined the group for lunch and a short address, spoke to the uncertainty in the room.

“We’re entering into a world where we really don’t know what the health care environment is going to be like,” Cooper said. “We’ve got to be working, we’ve got to keep plowing along.”

Encouragement from the top

Cooper gave the health directors and their staffs strokes, complimenting them on the work they do, often with few resources.

“The things that you do with immunizations and screenings and exams with prevention efforts… people who knew my work in the Legislature knew how much I valued public health and prevention because I know we can invest a little bit there we save a lot down the road,” he said, to applause.

Cooper also told the group that he wanted to expand the state’s Medicaid program, as has been allowed for under the Affordable Care Act.

The governor pushed for Medicaid expansion in his first week in office, attempting to get an application for an amendment to North Carolina’s state Medicaid plan to Washington before Obama left office. But a lawsuit filed by Republican leaders in the state legislature slowed the process enough that any decision will be made by a Trump administration antithetical to the ACA.

shows Megan Davies standing at a podium, speaking.
Former state epidemiologist Megan Davies was given the annual Ron H. Levine Legacy Award, Thursday. Bob Seligson, who heads the North Carolina Medical Society was also recognized with the award, which is given to public health leaders annually at the state health directors’ meeting. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“Aside from  the moral and health issues that are there, this is an economic issue,” Cooper said. “Ninety-five percent of the money is coming from tax money we’ve already paid to the federal government that’s going to other states instead.”

Former state epidemiologist Megan Davies also received a standing ovation when presented with an annual public health leadership award Thursday. She resigned in public protest last summer over the McCrory administration’s handling of issues surrounding well water of people living near coal ash ponds.

She also encouraged the people in the room to keep moving, despite the uncertainty.

“The view from up here is inspiring, and I’ve missed the sight of you and being around you,” said Davies, a physician who said she’s been doing some consulting work, but mostly has been home with her family since leaving her job.

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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...