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Public health needs in spotlight

State scores low on wellness issues; report card to be released today

By Chelsea Conaboy
Globe Staff / July 19, 2011

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Massachusetts is a national leader in providing access to health care, but when it comes to prevention programs that help people avoid the doctor’s office by leading a healthy lifestyle, the state has plenty of room for improvement, according to a report card to be released today by a coalition of health and community advocates.

The Boston Foundation, one of the largest community foundations in the country, and NEHI, a nonprofit health policy institute based in Cambridge, scored the state on 14 areas of public health. The state earned no A’s and five B’s, recognizing efforts to build walking paths and bike lanes, promote farmers’ markets, and encourage workplace health programs.

It received low marks on other food- and fitness-related measures, including low rates of daily exercise among high school students and a dearth of supermarkets in many parts of the state. The group gave Massachusetts an F for being among a minority of states that exempt sodas and other sugary drinks from the state sales tax.

Advocates said the report is meant to put a spotlight on the state’s pressing public health needs, particularly obesity, as lawmakers continue to whittle away at the money available to deal with them. In Massachusetts, 3 in 5 adults are overweight, a reality that the report said has fueled a surge in health care costs.

“We are such an incredible leader in health care and life sciences here in the state,’’ said Valerie Fleishman, executive director of NEHI, which was formerly known as the New England Healthcare Institute. “We should equally be a leader in the nation when it comes to health promotion and wellness.’’

The state Department of Public Health has a history of being out in front on programs to curb tobacco use, to diagnose and treat HIV, and to promote maternal and child health, said Valerie Bassett, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association.

But, aside from the HIV programs, many of those notable programs have been undermined by budget cuts, said Bassett, who is part of Healthy People/Healthy Economy, a leadership group for the campaign by NEHI and the Boston Foundation, but was not involved in drafting the report card.

“We are seeing an erosion of the core of public health, as well as a real stripping of [the department’s] ability to respond to new challenges,’’ Bassett said.

Between fiscal 2001 and fiscal 2011, state spending on health care services rose 76 percent. The Department of Public Health budget was cut about 25 percent in the same period, when adjusted for inflation and consumer prices, according to a NEHI analysis of state figures. The department faces further cuts under the budget signed recently by Governor Deval Patrick.

“We continue to face the effects of an unprecedented economic collapse,’’ Health and Human Services spokeswoman Jennifer Kritz said in e-mail. “Like states across the country, we have had to make some very difficult choices.’’

Kritz said the department has worked to protect key services, including those that address substance abuse, youth violence, suicide prevention, and sexual assault.

Advocates said the state has options for funding public health programs.

Bassett’s organization has asked lawmakers to create a trust with about $75 million annually paid by insurers and used to award grants for community-based public health programs. The Massachusetts Association of Health Plans opposes the plan.

The Boston Foundation and NEHI are pushing for legislation that would impose the sales tax on sugary beverages. They plan to update the scorecard each year. The inaugural report will be released at a forum this morning at The Boston Foundation’s office and will be available online at www.tbf.org.

Chelsea Conaboy can be reached at cconaboy@boston.com.