A report card (pdf) released today delivers some discouraging news about Massachusetts public health. The public health report card was developed by The Boston Foundation and NEHI as part of the Healthy People/Healthy Economy Coalition, and highlights areas of strengths and weaknesses in our public health system. Though Massachusetts received zero As, it received five Bs, indicating some modest accomplishments including building walking paths and bike lanes, farmer’s markets, and workplace health programs. However, the coalition that developed the report gave the Commonwealth sub-par marks on rates of daily exercise among high school students and the paucity of supermarkets in many areas of the state.
Most discouraging is the failing grade the Coalition gave to Massachusetts for being one of the few states that exempts sodas and other sugary drinks from the state sales tax. Though Massachusetts ranks lower than many states in terms of population obesity rates, obesity is an epidemic of growing proportions, no pun intended.
Obesity takes its toll on the state economy, as it contributes to decreased workplace productivity and increased medical spending, costing the state over $1.8 billion per year. According to a January 2011 study published in The American Journal of Public Health, just a 5% reduction in the prevalence of diabetes and hypertension can save the Commonwealth about $450 million each year.
In a time where augmented public health efforts are essential for preventing costly illnesses down the road, Department of Public Health funding has consistently been one of the programs on the chopping block. According to the NEHI analysis, between FY 2001 and FY 2011, state spending on health care services rose 76%, while the Department of Public Health Budget was slashed by about a quarter over that same period.
Health Care For All supports legislation that will remove the exemption form the state sales tax on sugary beverages (H. 1697). Such a tax can accomplish two goals. First, a higher relative cost of sugary drinks will discourage consumers from purchasing high calorie beverages and instead choose better options such as water. In addition, the revenue earned from such a tax can be used toward public health initiatives that will keep us healthy today, and avoid catastrophic health problems (and costs) tomorrow.
Health Care For All also supports the Prevention and Cost Control Trust (H. 1498), sponsored by Representative Lewis, which would provide a stable source of funding for community health programs that prevent disease and cut health care costs. Grants from this Trust would go directly toward programs that target costly, preventable diseases that are disproportionally represented in certain communities. Investing a modest sum in our community health today will yield huge payoffs in the future- both in terms of our health and our wallets.
Massachusetts leads the nation in terms of highly-regarded hospitals and percentage of insured residents. It only makes sense for Massachusetts to continue with this trend, and work to lead the nation in public health.