With state testimony, local leaders seek public health system investment

  • Franklin Regional Council of Governments Community Services Director Phoebe Walker, at the podium, and other members of the Coalition for Local Public Health speak at a press conference Tuesday on the steps of the State House in Boston before testifying in a virtual hearing on the possible uses of American Rescue Plan Act funding. Contributed photo

Staff Writer
Published: 9/21/2021 7:30:49 PM

Phoebe Walker, director of community services with the Franklin Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG), was among state, regional and local leaders to testify at Tuesday’s hearing on the need to invest federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds in local public health services.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to invest in the local public health system and try to create one that is significantly more effective,” said Walker, who made the drive Tuesday morning from Franklin County to Boston. “It feels really, really worth my time.”

Following a press conference on the steps of the State House, Walker and other members of the Coalition for Local Public Health testified at the virtual hearing held by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Ways and Means and the House Committee on Federal Stimulus and Census Oversight, which was focused on possible uses of the ARPA funding in the areas of health care, mental health, public health and human services.

Walker explained the Coalition for Local Public Health is calling on the Legislature to invest 5% of the ARPA funds coming to Massachusetts — roughly $251 million over five years — toward building a local public health system that is “equitable, efficient and effective.”

“Organizing local public health services at the municipal level is inherently inefficient, especially for small towns,” Walker said. “Our regional model demonstrates that rural communities can come together effectively to ensure they all receive essential public health services, no matter how small or under-resourced their town is.”

Walker, a Buckland resident, spoke as a representative of the rural parts of the state, and specifically, the Western Massachusetts Public Health Association, which is a member organization of the Coalition for Local Public Health.

“My decades of experience in rural public health have given me perspective on just how urgent the need for investment in transformational structural change is,” Walker said in her testimony, which was provided in an email to the Greenfield Recorder. “And I am here to say that the coalition’s proposal for investment of federal dollars is exactly what is needed to implement the recommendations of the (Special Commission on Local and Regional Health).”

In a press conference before the hearing, Walker described the two proposals made by the coalition to the Legislature: an investment in data systems and an investment in the local public health workforce.

“On the special commission, I was the chair of the data subcommittee, and frankly, it was shocking how little data is collected in this state about how we are doing in protecting public health,” Walker said.

She pointed to the insight the COVID-19 pandemic provided on how housing impacts health.

“Our state collects no data on housing code complaints, housing safety violations and housing code enforcement outcomes,” she said, as an example. “Every local health department should have access to online permitting software, online inspection software and a 21st-century state reporting system that lets us know as a commonwealth how we are doing and what hazards our residents face.”

Additionally, she said, the state is in need of a “significant investment” in its public health workforce.

“Right now, we have no mandatory workforce standards for local public health,” Walker said. “We have mandatory training for assessors and tree wardens and librarians, but not for health inspectors.”

State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, was also among those in attendance at Tuesday’s press conference and hearing.

“Our local public health system is broken,” Comerford said. “It leaves people in small, rural communities and low-income urban communities without critical protections. The Legislature must seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to create an equitable 21st-century local public health system that Massachusetts can be proud of.”

Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne.




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