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Bill helps coordinate local and regional public health services, including disease control, emergency preparedness

On Wednesday Sate Representative Denise Garlick along with their colleagues in the House of Representatives unanimously passed legislation to strengthen local and regional public health services across Massachusetts.

The legislation, An Act Relative to Strengthening the Local and Regional Public Health System,

supports collaboration between local boards of health and neighboring municipal public health departments to deliver high-quality and efficient public health services such as disease control, emergency preparedness, restaurant inspection, sanitary code enforcement, and suicide prevention and substance use disorder outreach.

“The House has voted unanimously to strengthen local health departments through training and resources, and to create regional synergy with other health departments,” said Representative Denise Garlick, Vice Chair of the House Committee on Ways & Means (D-Needham).  “Public health departments in our 351 communities deal with issues seen and unseen, from water quality and effective sanitation to substance use disorders and suicide prevention. These are the concerns that affect quality of life in Massachusetts. This bill is vitally important and timely given current concerns over emergency preparedness with infectious diseases such as EEE and COVID-19.”

The passage of this legislation is the culmination of five years of work for Representative Garlick, after first filing the legislation in 2015 to establish the Special Commission on Local and Regional Public Health. The 25-member commission of public health and municipal experts released a 2019 report identifying ways for municipalities to overcome barriers and provide quality public health services to residents in Massachusetts.  The report found that of the 105 towns with fewer than 5,000 residents, 78 percent lacked full-time staff and that more than half had no health inspector. The report also found inconsistencies in training and credentials of local health department staff members and a lack of consistent data reporting across communities.

Specifically, the legislation seeks to strengthen local public health in three ways:

  • Establishes the State Action for Public Health Excellence (SAPHE) program: A competitive grant program that provides funding to public health departments to increase sharing of services across municipalities, strengthen service delivery capabilities, and improve system accountability and data reporting.
  • Ensures the local public health workforce has access to training: Provides boards of health officials and staff with free educational and training opportunities four times annually in regions across the state.
  • Sets new statewide public health standards: Department of Public Health will develop a set of minimum standards for foundational public health services to improve the quality of and create uniformity within the public health services of the Commonwealth.

As a first step, last year, the House committed to $500,000 in the Fiscal Year 2020 budget to fund new and expanded shared service programs in Metrowest, North Shore, and Western Massachusetts communities.

A former board of health member herself, Representative Garlick is aware of the complex challenges municipalities face to deliver high quality, efficient services. “Cities and town face substantial obstacles to protect the health and safety of their residents,” said Representative Garlick. “In my own district, Needham’s robust public health system provides residents with accessible resources to ensure clean drinking water, access to safe and healthy foods, and preventive care. This legislation will empower communities like Dover, that lack capacity to collaborate with neighboring towns to share services and more effectively protect public health in the Commonwealth.”  

The bill will now go to the Senate.