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Massachusetts health report could impact federal health care debate

By Patrick Donges


Pittsfield, MA – The Massachusetts Climate Change Adaptation Report, a study of the potential effects of climate change in the state and ways to curb their severity released earlier this week, cites several areas where public health may be put at risk by warmer global temperatures.

The report, mandated by a state law passed in 2008 aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, lists several potential undesirable health effects including spikes in respiratory illnesses, increased occurrences of mosquito borne diseases, and conditions aggravated by degraded water quality.

Steve Long is director of government relations at the Massachusetts chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

"I think when you look at the nexus between climate and health; more hot days will mean more stressors for people and also the air quality issues will be exacerbated, so that will affect people who have asthma."

"There will be things like lost work days, lost school days, and just the extreme discomfort. So there may be increased health care costs to help people take care of the health factors that are affected by climate change impacts."

The 129-page report has an entire chapter dedicated to how climate change is expected to affect public health, and makes several suggestions as to how those effects can be mitigated, including reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, increased public transit, and the creation of a statewide "Healthy Cities Initiative."

These proposals are being published as state and federal legislators continue to grapple with how to make health care more affordable while maintaining or improving efficiency and overall outcomes.

Massachusetts State Senator Benjamin Downing, who represents all of Berkshire and parts of Franklin and Hampshire Counties and sits on the Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change, said public health concerns are among the major reasons lawmakers should support a push towards a renewable energy-based economy.

"We know that continued reliance on fossil fuels, especially older fossil fuel plants as we have here in Massachusetts, have significant impacts on public health, and significant costs."

"Often the opponents of efforts to combat climate change ignore the obvious cost of continuing to go down the path we're going down."

Massachusetts' health care system is under national scrutiny as former Governor Mitt Romney vies for the Republican nomination for president, and public health advocates in Washington say there is funding for climate change mitigation in the Affordable Healthcare Act of 2009 being targeted by the Republican controlled House of Representatives as part of proposed federal budget cuts.

Rich Hamburg, deputy director of the Washington-based Trust for America's Health, said universal access to quality care isn't the sole factor in the realization of improved care and lower costs.

"Health reform is certainly an issue of coverage, but what comes with that coverage not only are programs, but are expanded prevention provisions."

"How is climate change affecting the nation's health? How is pollution affecting the health of mothers and children? Those are all interrelated issues."

Downing agreed, saying that any federal discussion on health care should include an analysis of what the country is doing to reduce the health risks caused by climate change.

"If you are an advocate for reducing our health care costs, then you absolutely ought to care about climate change."

"We need to be putting incentives in place for individuals to make the right choices, but we also need to be putting in place the policies that will reduce those environmental impacts. We've tried to do that here in Massachusetts, we definitely have more to do, but what we really need is a serious federal discussion."