, Salem, MA

June 26, 2013

Letter: Regionalize local health boards

The Salem News

---- — To the editor:

The ongoing battle between the Salem City Council and the Board of Health regarding the size of the board has made a mockery of public service and makes it clear that public welfare is not at the core of the disagreement. The Salem Board of Health, with a well-reasoned and legal argument (see Massachusetts General Law Ch. 111, Sec. 26) petitioned the City Council to reduce its size to three members. The council sent the petition to committee and has yet to discuss it. One member of the Board of Health has resigned, citing lack of support from the mayor, and the mayor has replaced her and reappointed the other three board members whose terms had expired. But now the City Council declined to confirm the reappointments, wants to discuss the matter behind closed doors and has given no explanation. Then, several cities of the North Shore receive a $325,000 state grant to improve public health and there are councilors quibbling over which city gets to lead the regional program. The time to begin reforming local boards of health is now.

The Salem City Council needs to get in line with state law and other cities of the North Shore and reduce the size of the Board of Health to three members. The law establishing a board of health was enacted in 1912 in response to drastic public health needs. Before that time, people were slaughtering animals in backyards, draining carcasses in bathtubs and drinking raw, unpasteurized milk. Today all these processes and the many more overseen by the board are regulated, involve the latest technologies and are streamlined to promote safety and efficiency. And, yet, the Board of Health has not streamlined for efficiency. It has bloated to an unwieldy seven required members and, as a result, is unable to perform its basic functions.

Not only should the Salem board be reduced in size, but the future lies in regionalization in public health departments as it does in other departments that have been regionalized, like the South Essex Waste Water Treatment Plant, which covers five municipalities. As Nelson Benton noted in his May 31 column, promoting efforts such as regional cooperation should be encouraged and parochialism discouraged. This is the right way to provide public services and improve cost efficiency.

Isn’t it a fine feeling to know that today a person can go to a medical facility and get skilled and safe treatment without fear of contracting a transmittable illness? Today we have vast and advanced knowledge in the medical field and people live longer and healthier lives than ever before. Doctors used to control the spread of illness by quarantining patients, but today they employ advanced treatment and screening processes as well as vaccines so that illnesses, such as polio and smallpox, are virtually eradicated. Before 1912, when the law establishing a board of health was enacted, health and safety were very different than they are now. There was a time when the Board of Health needed its hands on the pot at all times, but today the Board of Health, together with medical professionals, have put in place the most modern regulations and procedures to protect public health. The pot almost takes care of itself.

Based on the knowledge we have today, gained since 1912, we should reap the fruits of our labors. The Salem Board of Health should have been restored to its original three members long ago. Now it’s time for legislators to step up to the plate and work toward doing away with local boards in favor of regionalization. The protection of public health can be accomplished by a regional board with representatives from each municipality (such as the health officer), and the cost savings would be passed down to cities, towns and taxpayers.

Robert Blenkhorn

Retired certified health officer, Commonwealth of Massachusetts