Bill, awaiting governor’s approval, seeks to modernize public health system

  • COMERFORD

  • DUNLAVY

  • WALKER

Staff Writer
Published: 8/3/2022 3:50:11 PM
Modified: 8/3/2022 3:50:05 PM

If signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker, a bill that recently received unanimous support in the Legislature would “overhaul the state’s broken public health system,” according to state Sen. Jo Comerford’s office, by providing more consistent public health protections to residents across the state.

“Residents will be able to know that public health standards in their community are the same as 100 miles away,” said Comerford, D-Northampton, who co-sponsored the bill. Comerford serves as Senate chair of both the Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management, and the Joint Committee on Public Health.

The Statewide Accelerated Public Health for Every Community Act (SAPHE 2.0) builds on the State Action for Public Health Excellence Act that Baker signed into law in April 2020, according to the Massachusetts Public Health Association. It aims to establish minimum public health standards for every municipality, increase capacity and effectiveness, create a uniform data collection and reporting system, and dedicate sustainable state funding.

“Right now, Massachusetts doesn’t have a public health framework to guide local boards of health,” Comerford explained. “And the state also hasn’t consistently funded local and regional public health until recently. This bill will change both of those things completely.”

Standards will be set for communicable disease control; public health nursing services; food and water protection; chronic disease and injury prevention; environmental public health; maternal, child and family health; and access to clinical care.

The bill also directs the Department of Public Health and the Department of Environmental Protection to provide core public health educational and training opportunities, and technical assistance to municipal and regional public health officials. This will help prevent a situation from arising in which a board is unable to access health expertise from a credentialed member of the public health workforce.

“We have been raising the alarm about the state of local public health in Massachusetts for years,” said Phoebe Walker, director of community services for the Franklin Regional Council of Governments. “Now, with the passage of SAPHE 2.0, we have achieved real progress in our effort to transform the entire local public health system, and this is particularly important for rural public health equity.”

Linda Dunlavy, executive director at FRCOG, echoed Walker’s sentiments.

“It’s the classic problem in Franklin County that our municipalities are under-resourced and struggling to meet the demands that municipal governments are required to meet,” she said. “The state assisting with that and ensuring public health protection will certainly benefit rural communities significantly.”

The bill — which Baker has 10 days from July 29 to sign — stems from conversations that began in the Special Commission on Local and Regional Public Health, which first met in 2017. Following a report on public health in 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic that followed, “it became critical to respond in a way that would strengthen public health,” Comerford recalled.

Shared services

What followed was the State Action for Public Health Excellence Act, referred to as SAPHE 1.0, which began incentivizing shared services, she said. Locally, the region has benefited from the state’s investment in public health since the passage of that bill, most recently with Greenfield’s $1.5 million grant to provide professional assistance to Shutesbury, Leverett, Montague, Deerfield and Sunderland over the next five years.

“It’s been wildly successful — both the money and the state’s recognition that it needed to be more proactive and supportive,” Comerford said.

SAPHE 2.0 continues incentivizing shared services while also establishing minimum public health standards, providing workforce training and improving data collection.

“In 2021, we appropriated $200 million in (American Rescue Plan Act) funding,” Comerford said. “In 2022, (SAPHE 2.0) is the framework to spend that $200 million.”

Comerford said the passage of the bill by the entire Legislature is a “big deal.”

“What we’re doing is creating a 21st-century public health system,” she said. “I believe the governor will sign this and … I do believe this is the responsible way to answer our constituents when they ask, ‘How are we going to be better next time?’ … It’ll affect us next time we’re hit with a contagion, but it’ll also help residents in the region every single day.”

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429.


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