Why the Legislature must act on vital public health system reforms

Published: 6/23/2022 8:05:35 PM

Modified: 6/23/2022 8:03:13 PM

We represent the mayors, select boards, boards of health, town administrators and health directors of numerous communities in western Massachusetts and we are asking our legislative leadership to swiftly pass H.4328, also known as SAPHE 2.0 Bill, without delay.

We want to express our deep appreciation for the support of our legislators for the local public health system over the last two years, including inclusion of funding for local public health in the fiscal years 2021 and 2022 and in draft House and Senate budgets for fiscal year 2023, and for an unprecedented $200 million investment in the local public health system in the recently activated ARPA legislation.

Legislative leadership has been crucial during the pandemic and will continue to be essential as we chart a course toward a more effective, efficient, and equitable system for the future.

Western Massachusetts has led the way for local health reform, with numerous communities coming together to share public health services in efficient ways, but statewide action is needed. Truly effective cross-jurisdictional sharing can only happen in the context of a modern local public health system, and Massachusetts’ system is stuck in the 19th century. Without professional standards, stable funding, and comprehensive data collection, our local health system cannot move forward.

The SAPHE 2.0 Bill is the vital final piece of legislation needed to ensure we move forward as a state on the lessons learned through the pandemic. Jointly filed by Chair Denise Garlick and Rep. Hannah Kane in the House and Chair Jo Comerford in the Senate, this bill implements the unanimous recommendations of the 2019 Special Commission on Local and Regional Public Health.

SAPHE 2.0 will enable the commonwealth to utilize ARPA funds to build the 21st century system our residents need and deserve — a system that efficiently and equitably serves all residents, no matter their race, income, or zip code. We simply cannot build this system without these policy reforms, which include the adoption of universal minimum public health standards, the establishment of workforce education and credentialing standards, and the development of a state-local partnership that ensures the adequate and equitable funding to local and regional health departments to serve all residents.

Action is urgently needed. The COVID-19 pandemic is not over, and too many of our health departments continue to struggle to effectively and equitably provide services to our residents. We continue to focus on COVID prevention and response, while not forgoing our responsibilities to inspect food establishments and septic systems; to protect residents from substandard housing and lead poisoning; to manage insect-borne diseases; and to oversee hazardous waste disposal; to name just a few of our duties.

Funding through the Public Health Excellence grant program has helped share and enhance services, and we hope to see this program expanded. But funding alone cannot solve the workforce shortages, lack of integrated data systems, or fundamental funding inequities baked into our current system. We need the policy reforms of SAPHE 2.0.

SAPHE 2.0 will benefit residents for generations to come. After experiencing a worldwide pandemic, now is the time for bold action. These changes will finally solve a problem that has plagued our state for decades, while benefiting our communities for many more decades to come.

We look forward to a continued partnership and stand ready to work with you at every step of the way.

The column was signed by 60 mayors, select board members, town administrators, board of health members, health directors, public health nurses, and others from western Massachusetts.

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