The Role of Interest Groups in Public Health Policy

Instructor: Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo

Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.

You have probably heard that interest groups play a role in influencing national, state, and community level policy. Health policy is no exception, and this lesson gives you an overview of how interest groups influence health policy.

What is an Interest Group?

An interest group is made up of a number of people who have a common view in regards to a specific topic that is going to be regulated through public policy and, as a consequence, the members of the group work together to see their view reflected in the policy.

To illustrate, let's imagine that Congress is debating whether to include in the public health law a set of regulations to allow women 3 months maternity leave after giving birth. A group of people knows this topic is up for debate. The group agrees that it is in the interest of public health for new mothers to have a 3 month paid leave. This group is very diverse, including nutritionists, gynecologists, psychologists, pediatricians, and families, among others. The group agrees to work together to influence Congress to pass this new regulation. Now, let's explore how interest groups work to influence policy.

Basic Role of Interest Groups

The most basic role of interest groups is to influence policy. The representatives of an interest group accomplish this by means of lobbying. Lobbying involves talking to people in powerful positions to achieve a goal. Often, interest groups find resistance from the public because they are seen as the guys who work behind the scenes to influence legislators. This concept of influencing legislators can often give the appearance that interest groups just have a lot of money, powerful connections, and an economic interest in influencing policy.

While this basic view about interest groups may be true, these groups play important roles in the making of public health policy. Let's explore those roles.

Other Important Roles of Interest Groups

Before lobbying in Congress to achieve a goal, interest groups play important roles that consider the interest of society as a whole, or at least of a big part of society. Some of the most important roles that interest groups play are the following:

Representing diverse groups in society: Citizens vote to elect their representatives in Congress. However, once those representatives are in Congress, citizens often stay out of the work their legislative representatives do. This is where interest groups play an important role, because their view is not just the view of a few people with power, money, or knowledge. The interest group meets with citizens who represent different groups of people in society to get their input, such as healthcare professionals, moms, etc. Moreover, the interest group informs the public of new regulations in public health policy.

Being the voice of regular citizens: Since an interest group considers the interest of diverse groups of the population, when the interest group influences policy, it is acting as the voice of regular citizens. In other words, regular citizens who do not get to lobby in Congress are represented by the interest group which is able to lobby to influence policy. Let's go back to our initial example about the 3 month maternity leave. The interest group meets with women who have had to go back to work a few weeks after giving birth. These women give their opinions and explain to the interest group why the policy should change.

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