2017-09-07 / Editorial

Legislators put Maine’s well being back on track

Beyond the Headlines
by Sen. Justin Chenette

On the last day of this year’s legislative session, the House and Senate took a meaningful step toward reversing some of the damage done to the state’s public health infrastructure during the past six and a half years of Gov. Paul LePage’s administration. Lawmakers came together to override Gov. LePage’s veto of a bill to restore Maine’s dedicated corps of public health nurses – the state’s first line of defense against disease outbreaks and long-term health crises.

Since 1920, the state’s public health nurses have promoted and protected the health of Maine’s entire population, with a goal of preventing disease and disability. These health professionals are charged with preventing and containing disease outbreaks, as well as proactively working to limit long term health challenges such as tobacco use, opioid addiction and obesity. Unlike most medical professionals who work with individuals, public health nurses work with entire populations.

They conduct home visits with young families and pregnant women, providing education and assessment to help new moms and dads raise healthy children. They help families with substance-affected babies so that those newborns can grow up to be healthy children. However, their work goes beyond the household. They see individuals and families on referral from hospitals, physicians, schools and other community organizations. Public health nurses provide critical crisis response services, such as in 2009 when they established 238 clinics in Maine to provide H1N1 vaccines.

For six years, we’ve seen the state backslide on its commitment to public health. The governor’s administration has whittled the program down to the bone. It has eliminated positions and refused to fill vacancies. The end result is a program at a fraction of the strength it was when Gov. Paul LePage took the helm six years ago.

Today, state public health nursing levels are one-third of what they were in 2011, leaving our state unprepared to meet the public health needs of Mainers, even in the best times. The lack of public health nurses cripples Maine’s ability to respond to an outbreak and weakens our state’s ability to fight the ongoing health crises such as rising infant mortality rates and the drug epidemic that’s killing at least one Mainer every single day.

This year, the biennial budget includes 48 positions within the public health nursing program, signaling the Legislature’s intention to restore the program. However, Gov. LePage still had the authority to simply not fill those funded positions. So on the last day of session, we overrode his veto of a bill that requires the Department of Health and Human Services to promptly fill those positions. The bill is now law, and has removed Gov. LePage’s ability to gut public health services by refusing to hire, and will ensure professional public health nurses will stand at the ready to safeguard Maine’s well-being against health emergencies, chronic disease and epidemic.

The health and wellbeing of Maine’s people is the foundation of any further success. All of our other shared goals, like opportunity, prosperity and equality are meaningless if our health has faltered. By restoring public health nursing, we have recommitted our state to maintaining the public health infrastructure necessary for our state to thrive.

Justin Chenette is serving his first term as the youngest senator in the Maine Senate representing Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Hollis, Limington and Buxton. He previously served two terms in the Maine House of Representatives. Outside the Legislature, he is the owner of Chenette Media LLC, a marketing & public relations firm, works as the marketing coordinator of Saco Sport & Fitness, and is the president/ CEO of the Saco Bay Center of Civic Engagement, a 501c3 nonprofit service organization. Sign up for legislative updates at www.justinchenette.com or www.Facebook.com/JustinChenette.

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