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Opinion: Leaders urge Legislature not to weaken public health protections

Montanans are hurting.

We are approaching one year since COVID first reached Montana. In this time, we’ve made it through stay-at-home orders, school closures, major strains on our hospitals, and acute stress at every level from the family on up. We’ve lost jobs, businesses, the ability to see family and loved ones, and most importantly, we’ve lost over 1,300 Montanans – each one leaving entire communities grieving. COVID has caused unspeakable loss.

 None of us know a single Montanan who doesn’t want their families to be safe and healthy. We don’t know any business owners who wouldn’t do everything in their power to keep their customers happy and their employees sustained. Montanans work hard, they care about one another, and they want their communities to thrive.

Unfortunately, in the first month alone of this 2021 legislative session, legislators have introduced nearly one dozen bills to weaken our local public health protections. We recognize that there are ways to improve the quality and efficiency of the public health system, but the bills presented to date won’t benefit Montana consumers or public health. They will add unnecessary bureaucracy, increase budgets and increase health care premiums. These bills also would cause harm and confusion at the local level. They don’t take into account that each county is different in Montana, and local communities have developed systems that work for them when it comes to public health.

Boards of health and health officers are already accountable to the public. Community members can hold their local board of health and health officers accountable in two main ways: through their votes when electing the city and county leaders who appoint the boards, and also by participating in open public meetings held by their local boards of health.

Imagine a world in which it becomes harder to monitor restaurant safety, drinking water, rabies, swimming pool safety and more. Montana tourism brings in over $7 billion to the state each year. Weakening public health would be dangerous for our families, and could hit our economy hard. Will visitors come to a state that can’t guarantee safe restaurants, water, public spaces and infectious disease control?

Our Montana public health system is one of the best in the country, and began with a single board of health in 1901. Since then, our hardworking health professionals and elected officials have been working diligently, and collaboratively, to protect and improve the health of all Montanans. As a state, together with local and tribal health departments, we’ve managed disease outbreaks, safeguarded safe drinking water and safe food, provided programs and services to support healthy living, ensured community emergency preparedness, and responded to emerging threats.

According to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services Public Health and Safety Division (PHSD), Montana’s public health initiatives over this past century have increased life expectancy by approximately 30 years, and have significantly reduced death rates due to disease and injury.

As a public health practitioner and a former Teton County Commissioner from different sides of the political aisle, we may not agree on everything, but we agree that we can and must come through this pandemic stronger. Keeping Montana’s public health system strong and intact is vital if we are to achieve this goal.

Yes, we can do some things to better ensure that COVID protections aren’t unnecessarily burdensome on businesses and the public. For example, we could require that health boards review and then adopt, amend or rescind a health officer’s order that is in effect for more than 45 days. Public health advocates are ready to sit down with legislators to discuss this and other ideas.

Today, we invite our Montana legislators to collaborate with health experts to find practical solutions. Let us not respond rashly to a once in a lifetime pandemic by hobbling a 120-year-old system our forefathers and so many generations of Montanans before us worked so hard to build.

Montanans have been hurting. But together we can come through this stronger.

Cora Neumann, public health practitioner, member of MPHA & COVID Local, founder of We Are Montana; Jim Hodgkiss, rancher, former Teton County Commissioner; Dale J. Seifert, Pondera County Health Board and Chairman of the Pondera County Commissioners.