Health is all around you

The Founding Fathers granted Congress the power to collect taxes to provide for the “common Defence and general Welfare” of the United States. As the size, economy, and complexity of the nation expanded, so too did the federal government’s roles and responsibilities in protecting Americans—providing for societal needs when the market does not and when individuals are unable to address these needs themselves. Maintaining a strong military is one of government’s fundamental responsibilities. But it takes more than just the Department of Defense to keep Americans safe and secure. Public health—which by definition affects the public, writ large—is an essential pillar of national security, and one that the government is best positioned to support.

Public health is the science and art of protecting and promoting health in communities where we live, work, and learn. These activities are such a part of daily living they are often invisible, and almost always taken for granted. The federal agencies and programs of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) work in partnership with state and local governments, universities, hospitals and health centers, charitable organizations, private industry, and each other to:

  • Assure the safety of our food, water, drugs, and environment
  • Protect, respond, and rebuild in times of crisis
  • Prevent and treat disease and disability
  • Promote well-being and responsible choices
  • Educate the next generation of health professionals and scientists Provide our nation’s most vulnerable populations access to basic care

From detecting and responding to public health threats, to enhancing knowledge through scientific discovery, to ensuring access to health services and the professionals who deliver them, the government is a critical partner in preserving and protecting the health of every American.

Evolution of the public health enterprise

Public health is one of the oldest government functions, dating back to 1798 when Congress first authorized the Marine Hospital Service to deliver care to merchant seamen who had a higher incidence of disease.i From this single federal investment stemmed the beginnings of the Public Health Service, first codified by the Public Health Service Act in 1944. Today’s HHS is comprised of the Office of the Secretary, 11 operating divisions—including the eight agencies authorized by the Public Health Service Act and three human services agencies—10 regional offices, and the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, which is a uniformed service of more than 6,000 health professionals serving in many HHS and other federal agencies.


The Public Health Service agencies comprise a small portion of the Department of Health and Human Services’ overall budget—just 5.5 percent—but they provide the building blocks Americans need to live healthy, successful lives. These agencies touch every American, providing millions of children, families, and seniors with access to care, keeping the food on Americans’ shelves safe and infectious diseases at bay, and pushing the boundaries of how we diagnose and treat disease.

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is the nation’s first responder in health emergencies, and supports people in living healthier, longer.
  • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ensures that food, drugs, medical devices, and cosmetics that come to market are safe and effective.
  • The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) supports the pipeline for new health providers and delivers health services in our nation’s communities.
  • The Indian Health Service (IHS) funds health services and local facilities that serve American Indian and Alaska Native populations.
  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) supports communities in providing treatment and prevention to those in need.
  • The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) provides evidence to improve health care costs, quality, and access through funding to local universities and research centers.
  • The National Institutes of Health discovers cures and treatments for illness—physical and behavioral—through funding to local universities and research centers.


i. Taylor, Jessamy. “The Basics: Public Health Service.” NHPF. (accessed May 9, 2014).