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Our Turn: NH needs a healthy state budget

By MICHELE MERRITT and APRIL MOTTRAM Published: 4/19/2021 8:51:16 AM

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every community across New Hampshire and illuminated how race, place and income can affect a person’s health, and even survival, in the Granite State. Now that National Public Health Week as come to a close, we would like to reflect on the American Public Health Association’s theme of Building Bridges to Better Health.

At New Futures and the N.H. Public Health Association, building a bridge to better health means rebuilding from these challenges into a healthier and more equitable state as we enter the beginning of the end of this global pandemic. To do so, we need a strong public health system that extends far beyond addressing the immediate challenges of the pandemic and promotes health equity for every person in every community.

Over the last year, COVID-19 has stretched many of our public health systems and workers to their limit. Mental health and substance use treatment providers, childcare professionals, teachers, parents and caregivers, are among so many others. The importance of investing in a strong health system has never been clearer. To overcome the pandemic and rebuild as a better, more inclusive State, we urge our lawmakers to prioritize investment in public health initiatives, including behavioral health prevention, treatment, and recovery programs; children’s behavioral health services; and early childhood supports.

Last week, the New Hampshire House of Representatives passed its state budget proposal, HB 1 and HB 2. While the budget includes some essential health funding, it also comes up short in meeting the needs of communities as they attempt to recover from the pandemic. We are relieved that the governor and Senate leaders have voiced their concerns for the House budget, and we look forward to working beside them to pass a healthy state budget that supports the health and wellness of all Granite Staters.

The Senate has started crafting its budget proposal and we look to them for leadership in rebuilding a better state for all. On behalf of public health advocates across the state, we urge our senators to overcome critical gaps in the House budget proposal and address the following areas of need:

Funding for Community Health Workers (CHWs) at each of the state’s 13 Public Health Networks. CHWs are frontline liaisons between health and social services and the community. As trusted members of their communities, CHWs improve access, quality and cultural competence of services. Research shows that CHWs can effectively improve health outcomes, reduce health care costs and bridge gaps in health disparities.

Support the Student Loan Repayment Program (SLRP) for healthcare workers in underserved areas of NH. These funds represent a critical investment helping to recruit and retain primary, behavioral and other care workers, and ultimately help ensure all residents have access to health care services.

Full funding for tobacco prevention and cessation through My Life, My Quit, which specializes in adolescent vaping. New Hampshire has seen a rapid increase in Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS) or e-cigarette products among high school aged youth. This program will fill a major gap in cessation services that have been traditionally focused solely on tobacco with an adult audience. Tobacco costs the state of New Hampshire $729 million. Investing in prevention will reduce these costs and save taxpayer dollars.

Investment in primary prevention like Family Resource Centers and Home Visiting. These proven prevention services play a critical role promoting the wellbeing of families and healthy childhood development by helping families navigate difficult situations and build on their own protective factors.

In addition to these critical funding areas, we look to our senators and Gov. Sununu to put an end to several harmful provisions included in the House budget that propose to abolish the Enforcement Division of the N.H. Liquor Commission, jeopardizing the safe operation of alcohol establishment; ban dissemination of certain “divisive concepts” like unconscious bias related to sex and race that are critical to addressing public health disparities across New Hampshire; defund essential reproductive health care providers during a pandemic; and eliminate $50 million and 226 positions from the state Department of Health and Human Services in “back of the budget” cuts that could limit our ability to respond to and overcome COVID-19.

Investing in public health shows better health outcomes and lower health spending overall. Please continue to make your voice heard in support of rebuilding a healthier Granite State. To ensure investments in the health and wellness of residents, call your lawmakers and engage in the legislative process. Make your voices heard. Now is the time to prioritize sustained investment in the wellbeing of NH for a healthier tomorrow.

(Michele Merritt is president and CEO of New Futures. April Mottram is executive director of the N.H. Public Health Association.)

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