Long-standing health disparities have been exposed and exacerbated due to the COVID pandemic, including in New Jersey where advocates said the public health system in the state has been strained for decades.
“Our public health systems in New Jersey are chronically underfunded, leaving state and local health departments with too few resources to manage routine matters, let alone massive emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Maisha Simmons, director of New Jersey grantmaking with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Simmons said a 10-month planning phase has ended, and a new chapter begins as the foundation announced it is awarding a two-year, $1 million grant to Glassboro-based Acenda Integrated Health to serve as an incubator for the state’s first public health institute. It’s the culmination of a generation-long effort to establish one.
“For nearly three decades, New Jersey health leaders explored the benefits of establishing a public health institute to foster collaboration among sectors, advance racial equity, and address the social determinants of health,” Simmons added. “We’re among the few states without a public health institute that can be a clearinghouse for best practices, innovations, research, and advancement of public health services.”
Leaders at Tuesday’s virtual announcement boasted that this will be the first public health institute in the country with health equity as a founding principle.
“We look forward to considering how a public health institute can help advance health equity and innovations, could help to reduce New Jersey’s health disparities, and could address the social determinants of health,” said state Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli, who recalled lessons learned as her agency addressed the pandemic through an equity lens.
“We must continue to face these and other challenges in order to help address these critical public health gaps,” she added.
There are 33 states along with Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. that have public health institutions. The recommendation that the Garden State create such an entity came from a report released in March, that was authored by RWJF, Nicholson Foundation, and the National Network of Public Health Institutes, in collaboration with the New Jersey Department of Health.
It concluded that a “new, independent nonprofit” needed to be established as the institute because “no existing organization in the state is appropriately positioned to fill this role.”
Simmons said other organizations weren’t ruled out due to disqualifiers, they saw an opportunity to take input from the community and other partners to imagine and create “what could be new.”
“We opened up an opportunity for a competition to really incubate and set the course for a new type of organization that will be built from scratch with best practices from NNPHI and other organizations across the country,” she added.
Melissa Fox, Acenda’s chief operating officer, stated the organization’s long-standing commitment to public health and reducing disparities, adding they look forward to working with RWJF and NNPHI.
“Supporting the launch of the state’s first public health institute is not only a great honor but is also firmly aligned with our mission,” she said.
Officials said it will take two years for the institute to stand on its own. Until then, they will explore what the relationship between the institute and the state health department will look like.