Department of Health and Human Services: More than just Medicine!


Xavier is having a great time making cookies for their birthday. When they finish scooping all of the dough onto the baking pan, they notice that there are still some bits of dough left in the bowl. Xavier goes to eat some of it, but their mom stops them. Their mom says that since they used raw eggs in the dough, they can’t eat any of it until the oven cooks it. Otherwise, they could get sick and have to go to the doctor on their birthday.


The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has a lot of responsibilities, and one of those is ensuring food safety. Xavier is making the dough themself, but they could have gone to the store and bought a container of cookie dough. If that dough had raw eggs and the container didn’t warn them it was dangerous to eat without cooking, that would be a crime for HHS to investigate. If Xavier had gotten sick from their homemade dough and needed the doctor, their mom might first have searched an HHS database for a doctor that accepts Medicaid, a national health insurance program.

Department of Health and Human Services

The Department of Health and Human Services is a part of the executive branch of the U.S. federal government, meaning that the head of HHS serves on the Cabinet, a group of government leaders who advise the president. The Secretary of Health and Human Services is appointed by the president and serves as head of the Department. The Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services, along with seven Assistant Secretaries, helps the Secretary lead the Department. The responsibilities of HHS include disease prevention and wellness, social services, and biodefense, among others.

The History

On July 1, 1939, the Federal Security Agency was established to handle health, education, and social security. However, its duties were so numerous that on April 11, 1953, President Eisenhower elevated it to a cabinet-level department and renamed it the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Then in 1979, the Department of Education became a separate department, and the Department of Health and Human Services as it exists today was established.

The motto of HHS is “Improving the health, safety, and well-being of America.” If that sounds like a broad mission, that is because HHS has a broad range of responsibilities, from public health crises to child care. To handle all of these responsibilities, eleven agencies report to HHS and carry out over a hundred programs. For instance, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) controls and supervises food, medicines, and cosmetics. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) focuses on developing and researching diseases, from infectious diseases to public health issues like obesity.

In addition to its health-related responsibilities, HHS also plays a significant role in many social service programs, like adoption and daycare. One of the departments which handles these programs include the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), which handles child abuse, adoption assistance, and welfare. The Administration for Community Living (ACL) is another department, and it provides support to individuals with special needs and elderly individuals.

HHS has around 80,000 employees at the federal, state, and local levels. While the role of the federal health department remains the same, the state and local health departments can vary depending on the area. Typically, their responsibilities include public health, collecting birth and death certificates, mental health, and more. They may also be in charge of social services or environmental protections. Whatever their individual responsibilities, HHS has ten regional offices that work directly with state and local departments to coordinate efforts and ensure that they are meeting the needs of that specific region.

Applying It

HHS affects everybody living in the U.S., even if you’ve never been sick a day in your life. It is in charge of public health, which includes obesity and diabetes, as well as social service programs. If your birth was registered within the U.S., likely a state department of health registered it. If you’ve ever seen the back of a frozen food container that said its contents must be warmed to a specific temperature before it was safe to eat, the FDA was the one to regulate those warnings. Knowing how HHS operates can help you understand more about the division of responsibilities within the U.S. government, as well as the many ways that the U.S. addresses public health and well-being.

Think Further

  1. What actions can you take to help support the mission of HHS?
  2. What’s one example, beyond the ones included here, that you can think of where you have encountered the impact of the HHS, one of their agencies, or one of their sub-departments?
  3. What do you think is the most essential part of HHS? Why?


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Learn More

  1. “A Common Thread of Service.” ASPE, 20 Dec. 2015.,
  2. Affairs (ASPA), Assistant Secretary for Public. “HHS Agencies & Offices.” HHS.Gov, 27 Oct. 2015.,
  3. “HHS Web Archive.” HHS.Gov, 7 Oct. 2018.,
  4. Services, U. S. Department of Health and Human. “HHS.Gov.” HHS.Gov,,