The Massachusetts Senate passed legislation filed by Senator Jason Lewis – An Act establishing the Special Commission on Local and Regional Public Health – to address significant challenges faced by the local health system in meeting statutory responsibilities and providing essential safeguards. These challenges range from funding inconsistencies across communities, with smaller communities often struggling, to variability in credentials for local boards of health and staff.
The Massachusetts local public health system is comprised of 351 boards of health at the municipal level, with a wide array of responsibilities, including: responding to reports of housing code violations; investigating outbreaks of foodborne illness; inspecting landfills and waste transfer stations; monitoring water quality at public swimming pools and beaches; inspecting and licensing children’s recreational camps; enforcing laws against retailers selling tobacco to minors; responding to outbreaks of infectious disease; and, preparing for potential public health emergencies.
The bill will create the Special Commission on Local and Regional Health, comprised of local and state officials and other service providers and experts from within and outside of the public health system. The Commission would help to establish a common and objective understanding of the state of our current local health system, allowing us to plan for shared and targeted efforts in the future to enhance the capacity, functionality, and efficiency of the local health system.
“Local health authorities in Massachusetts are led and staffed by committed public servants who dedicate their lives to meeting a vital public need,” said Senator Jason Lewis. “This legislation will help ensure that we provide these unsung public servants with the resources they need to keep our communities healthy.”
The Commission would be charged with submitting data and recommendations to the Governor, Public Health Committee (on which Senator Lewis serves as Senate Chair), and Ways & Means Committee to include: an examination of the capacity of local health in comparison with nationally-recognized standards and Massachusetts statutory responsibilities; an evaluation of existing local and state resources for local health and assessment of per capita funding; a description of the educational and training credentials of the local health workforce; an evaluation of existing regional collaborations and various models of service delivery; and, a review of local public health organizational structure and financing in other states.
“We’re delighted this legislation has passed through the Massachusetts Senate,” said Rebekah Gewirtz, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association. “The public expects and deserves basic protections provided by our system of local public health, like protection of the food supply, control of communicable diseases, and enforcement of the housing code. This bill will bolster the ability of our state to deliver on this promise and will support local officials to address the community factors which influence health in the places where we live, work, and play.”
Of the 105 Massachusetts towns with fewer than 5,000 residents, nearly 80% lack full-time staff and nearly 60% have no health inspector. Further, due to the small size of most local health departments, meeting national accreditation standards is nearly impossible for all but a very few.
Having passed the Senate, the legislation now moves to the Massachusetts House of Representatives for consideration.