Supporters across the country have been raising their voices to champion sustained investments in public health, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. On June 9, I joined more than 100 public health advocates on the steps of the Massachusetts State House to urge lawmakers to increase funding for the state’s local public health system.
The event was led by the Massachusetts Public Health Association and the Coalition for Local Public Health, which includes the Massachusetts Environmental Health Association, Massachusetts Association of Health Boards, and Massachusetts Association of Public Health Nurses.
A proposal to use $250 million of Massachusetts’ federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act was released earlier in the day. The proposed plan would use the funds for infrastructure investments to address health inequities, training and education to improve the public health workforce, and creating a universal public health data reporting system.
“The call for investment is long needed,” said State Representative Denise Garlick, who is a registered nurse.
Although Massachusetts has several world-class hospitals, “Our public health system is not something to brag about,” said the event MC Craig Andrade, associate dean of practice and director of the Activist Lab at the Boston University School of Public Health.
Many consider the public health system inequitable. Without state funding, services can vary greatly between municipalities. “For public health, zip codes matter,” Andrede said. A sign behind him summed up the inequity: “A zip code should not predict life expectancy.”
Many attendees held signs reading “No More Band Aids,” referring to piecemeal attempts at reform. The State Action for Public Health Excellence (SAPHE) program was started in 2020 to offer funding for local public health and currently supports 79 of the 351 municipalities across the Commonwealth. A budget proposal still being discussed may add $10 million.
But these programs are seen as a down payment. The American Rescue Plan Act, passed in March 2020, offers potentially a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for transformational improvement in the public health system.
Before COVID-19, a statewide committee had identified needed improvements to the system in a 2019 report, “Blueprint for Public Health Excellence.” Discussions on how to implement the report’s recommendations were underway when the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread.
Policymakers connected greater investments in the local public health system to improved health equity in their communities. “Public health affects every aspect of our lives,” said Representative Tami Gouveia, who recently received her DrPH. She also noted the intersectional importance of public health to racial, social, and gender justice.
“Every Massachusetts resident deserves strong public health protections, regardless of their race, income, or zip code,” said Carlene Pavlos, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association.
The event also recognized the public health workers who have been on the front lines of the pandemic response.
“Our public health system saves lives,” said Damon Chaplin, director of the New Bedford Department of Public Health, who spoke along with Ruth Mori, a public health nurse for the town of Wayland and president of the Massachusetts Association of Public Health Nurses. They discussed their experience on the front lines of public health against COVID-19. Lawmakers thanked them and all the local public health staff who have been involved in response efforts.
Eric Coles, DrPH, MPA, is president of the DrPH Coalition.