An Overview of the Department of Health and Human Services

If you pay any attention to the news, you may have heard that Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, has stepped down from her position. You might also have heard that her resignation is tied to the tumultuous unveiling of the controversial Affordable Care Act website, Prior to this recent controversy, you may not have even known about the Department of Health and Human Services, and you still might not have any idea what it does. Google searches on the topic mostly turn up results about Kathleen Sebelius and the political unrest surrounding "Obamacare," but let's dive a little deeper.

What does the DHHS Do?

In short, the goal of the department is to enact policies that protect Americans' health and provide essential health benefits to citizens in need, particularly those who may be unable to afford basic medical care on their own. The department also plays a role in regulating the quality and safety of food products that make it onto grocers' shelves and works to diagnose and treat disease. The DHHS is headed by a secretary (formerly Kathleen Sebelius) who is considered the chief managing officer of the "family" of agencies within the department. This includes 11 operating divisions, 10 regional offices, and the Office of the Secretary. The operating divisions include such agencies as the:

  • Administration for Children and Families
  • Administration for Community Living
  • Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
  • Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
  • Center for Disease Control and Prevention
  • Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services
  • Food and Drug Administration
  • Health Resources and Services Administration
  • Indian Health Services
  • National Institutes of Health
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

DHHS Operating Divisions' Budgets

Some of these, like the CDC, FDA, and Medicare and Medicaid Services, are probably familiar to you. Others, like the Indian Health Service, you might not have known exist. This may be because not every agency has the same "presence" in government, due in part to the wide range of budgets each division enjoys. For example, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) have by far the largest budget, at $763.14 billion annually, while the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), which is responsible for supporting research to improve the quality of healthcare and reduce its costs, has a budget of a mere $0.43 billion a year.

Programs and Services

Obviously, Medicare and Medicaid services are pretty much the single largest provision the department offers. In fact, DHHS provides healthcare to 1 in 4 Americans through the CMS. Total, there are 115 programs the 11 operating agencies offer, including family planning services, Indian health facilities, public health preparedness and response, vaccines for children, cancer research, substance abuse treatment, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (food stamps), intellectual and developmental disabilities services, and teen pregnancy prevention. See a full list here.

History and Origins

One could say that the initial idea for a national health services dates back to 1798, when President John Adams created the Marine Hospital Service to treat merchant sailors who had become sick or disabled. As time went on, the scope of national health services enlarged to include the prevention of epidemics, research facilities (now known as NIH), social security, help for the blind, and youth work training. The department continued to enlarge, particularly after WWII, but didn't reach its current organization (originally called the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare) until 1953. It was renamed as the Department of Health and Human Services in 1979.


About the Author:

Iris Stone has worked as a freelance writer since 2011. Her writing has included content on medicine, healthcare, and education, although her interests are wide and varied. Prior to breaking into the freelance biz, Iris worked in sales for a health company and prior to that as an assistant in a chiropractic office. She is currently attending George Mason University and is majoring in Political Science. Check out her Google+ profile.

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