Column: Public Health Priorities

Former Vice President Hubert Humphrey once said, “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

I am eager to put those values into action in my new role as Senate Chairman of the Public Health Committee in the Massachusetts Legislature.  Specifically, there are three key priorities on which I will be focusing.

The first key priority is working to address the opioid crisis and related addiction and mental health issues.  No community is immune to this terrible scourge.  Although significant steps have been taken at the state and community-level to improve prevention and treatment, the behavioral healthcare system in Massachusetts continues to be fragmented and under-funded.  Too often, addiction is still treated as a criminal justice problem rather than a healthcare problem.  We need to consider all possible strategies to strengthen education and prevention, and improve the accessibility and affordability of treatment options.

Fortunately, there are several positive signs for the year ahead.  I commend the Governor for convening his Opioid Addiction Working Group, and I look forward to the Working Group’s list of policy recommendations, expected to be released this May.  I also commend Attorney General Maura Healey for her early focus on opiate and prescription drug abuse, including attention to drug addiction among pregnant mothers-to-be.  Additionally, legislative leadership has made it clear that combatting substance abuse and addiction will be a top priority for the current legislative session.

The second key priority is working to address tobacco use and nicotine addiction, especially among our young people.  Although cigarette smoking has been on the decline among both young people and adults, the tobacco industry is aggressively marketing a wide range of new products, including fruit flavored cigars, smokeless tobacco, and e-cigarettes.  For the first time, the rate of high school students’ use of other tobacco products has exceeded even the rate of cigarette smoking.  These products are getting a new generation addicted to nicotine and can cause a variety of harmful health impacts.

Tobacco use continues to be the leading preventable cause of death and disability in Massachusetts and is responsible for billions of dollars in healthcare costs.  We must take steps to strengthen our tobacco laws, following the lead of many of our cities and towns who have already restricted the availability, sale, packaging, and marketing of new tobacco products to help protect minors.

The third key priority is building on the accomplishments of our prevention & wellness efforts.  In 2012, we enacted landmark legislation aimed at improving the quality of care while containing the unsustainable rise in healthcare costs.  This legislation is expected to save the Commonwealth $200 billion over the next fifteen years.  A key component of this effort is a paradigm shift in our healthcare system — moving away from our current sick care system to a well care system; from a system geared primarily toward treating illness to one geared toward keeping people healthy and preventing chronic illness.

As part of that landmark legislation in 2012, we created a first-in-the-nation Prevention and Wellness Trust.  This Trust now serves as a conduit for high-impact, competitive grants to communities across the Commonwealth to implement proven interventions that address the most prevalent, most preventable, and most costly health conditions facing Massachusetts residents.  I look forward to building on the success of the Prevention and Wellness Trust, as we seek to continue this fundamental paradigm shift in our healthcare system from our current sick care system to a well care system.

I look forward to my work leading the Public Health committee and the positive impact we can have on the well-being of our families and communities.  I welcome your input and feedback.