Ellen Embrey (Former US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs)

03.01.2011 - Interview conducted by Katie Dickmeyer

Q1. How can a comprehensive health policy be followed through in a time of economic crisis?
There’s a full spectrum of health issues in the world and the bottom line is that societies depend very much on their ability to function as a people and as a country. It is really important that basic public health needs are addressed in any society. Basic public healthcare is relatively inexpensive, even in times of economic difficulty, and there are plenty of initiatives that could be undertaken by NGOs, foundations, and more meager programs in the federal government to achieve these objectives. The Department of Defense has been spending record levels over the last eight and a half years, so as the money draws down from the DOD, some of those dollars can hopefully be reallocated to healthcare. Even in such times of economic difficulty, President Obama has committed himself to continuing the health initiative.
Q2. Under George W. Bush, US aid did not include contraceptives, as his government favored the conservative view that abstinence was more desirable.  To what extent do you think governments have the right to restrict certain types of aid in accordance to their own values?
I think the bottom line here is to try to understand what a culture needs. Family planning and educating women does not require any kind of contraception - only education. If a government in power believes that abortion and contraception is not acceptable on the grounds of religion or other reasons, there are still other ways to get the message across that women have other choices available to them.
Q3. On the other side of the argument, do you think governments have the right to force health policies on cultures, which may be averse, such as opposition to female genital mutilation or unproven traditional medicines?
I think it’s a matter of cultural understanding and when we begin to partner with countries, before we begin to enforce our own opinion on how healthcare should be delivered, we need to understand their needs and try and stay away from controversial issues, focusing more on basic health needs.

Q4. Is there a danger that, due to lack of funding, any bilateral aid must concentrate on a certain area or certain illness, therefore being prone to politicization as governments decide how to distribute aid?  Are multilateral organizations not far more qualified and objective in their deliverance of aid?
I think that this is the reason why a multilateral arrangement is preferable, because then you get multiple contributions towards a broader population base; I think that it is a better way to handle it than to have politics driving the solution.
Q5. What do you believe to be the most crucial issue when it comes to the provision of health services for the military?
Readiness and being able to ensure that individuals are fit, ready to perform their duties, and have been carefully monitored for the health effects of their previous deployments before redeploying.

Thank you for your time.