Pioneer Valley officials testify at State House in support of regional health bill

By MARY BYRNE

Staff Writer

Published: 05-05-2023 5:23 PM

BOSTON — Officials from across the Pioneer Valley testified at the State House on Thursday in support of a bill seeking to resolve what they called an “inequitable system” of providing public health services that was only further magnified amid the pandemic.

Legislators held a Joint Committee on Public Health hearing regarding H.2204/S.1334, a bill that would accelerate improvements to the local and regional public health system to address disparities in the delivery of its services. Among those to testify were Franklin Regional Council of Governments Director of Community Services Phoebe Walker, Melanie Zamojski of the Montague Board of Health and Northampton Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra.

“I would like to speak to the great importance of this bill to the 171 rural towns in Massachusetts, which cover 60% of the commonwealth’s land but less than 15% of the population,” Walker told legislators. “The governments of these towns struggle with lower incomes, less commercial activity and limited infrastructure. These limitations mean that communities have less to spend on local public health.”

Should H.2204/S.1334 pass, it would create a more centralized and better-funded public health system. Walker previously said the bill is returning after passing unanimously in both the House of Representatives and the Senate before getting “hung up in political negotiations” under the past administration.

Walker also shared her experience during the COVID-19 pandemic. When many Franklin County towns lacked their own public health nursing system, it resulted in building a “$180 million backup plan” that was the Contact Tracing Collaborative.

“If this bill had passed before the pandemic, we would have been far, far more ready,” Walker said.

Zamojski, who was a paramedic before becoming a nurse in western Massachusetts, echoed her colleague’s remarks. She shared with legislators an experience she had with one resident, whom she called regularly to check on while he was ill with COVID-19.

“While this gentleman was called, not everyone was,” she said. “There wasn’t time or people to do the work.”

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Sciarra added that in her role as mayor, she is “keenly aware of the fact that diseases and other public health challenges do not stay within municipal borders.”

“Someone living in a town nearby whose community does not fund public health nursing — since there is no current state requirement to do so — may come to Northampton to work, eat or play and spread an infection, despite our own well-staffed Department of Health and Human Services,” Sciarra said.

She said Northampton worked collaboratively with its smaller neighboring communities to provide public nursing where it was needed. And while this collaboration showed “great promise,” its future is dependent on the passage of this bill.

“The bill is long overdue for Massachusetts,” she said, “where our inequitable system has resulted in neighboring towns having vastly differing protections for their residents, meaning a single ZIP code can determine the future of someone’s health.”

For more information about the legislation, visit malegislature.gov/Bills/193/S1334.

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

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