Massachusetts has made modest improvements in services to keep residents healthy, such as providing better bikeways and walking paths, but serious financial problems with its mass transit system could undermine those gains, warns a report by a coalition of health and community advocates.
The report, to be released Tuesday, finds small gains in seven of 14 key health factors in Massachusetts over the past year, no change in six others, and a decline in one critical area: public transportation.
“The fact that we have this whole array of transportation finance issues facing the Commonwealth now concerns us greatly,” said Mary Jo Meisner, a spokeswoman for the Boston Foundation, one of the country’s largest community foundations. It produced the report with NEHI, a Cambridge health policy institute.
Public transit is important for health, the authors said, pointing to research that has found that users of local transportation systems walked an average of 24 minutes daily to and from stations.
“You can get a significant amount of your recommended daily physical activity by simply walking to the local bus or T stop,” said Maddie Ribble, director of policy and communications for the Massachusetts Public Health Association, a nonprofit organization that is part of the coalition that issued the report but was not involved in drafting the findings.
In its second annual report card on the health and wellness of Massachusetts, the coalition awarded higher marks for an increase in farmers markets, additional projects to bring fresh produce to low-income neighborhoods, and regulations scheduled to take effect in August that will bring some of the strictest nutrition standards in the country to the state’s public schools.
But MBTA fare hikes and service cuts planned for July, combined with grim reports about the transit system’s financial health and ability to expand to meet the growing need, may translate to fewer residents using public transportation, the advocates said.
Ribble said health concerns for riders of public transit stretch beyond Greater Boston, because several other regional systems, such as those on Cape Cod and in Western Massachusetts, are facing challenges.
Other key health areas reviewed by the coalition saw no progress toward improvement, including employee health programs, efforts to ban use of artery-clogging trans fats in restaurants, state funding for public health, and a campaign to remove the tax exemption for sugar-sweetened beverages.
Sugary drinks are blamed by nutrition specialists for helping to fuel the country’s obesity epidemic. Massachusetts exempts soda from the sales tax, like other food, and health advocates have long sought an end to that policy. Massachusetts is one of only 16 states, according to the report, that does not impose a sales tax on soda.
The report notes that since 2001, the state Department of Public Health budget has been cut 25 percent, forcing reductions in disease-prevention programs.
Dr. Lauren Smith, the department’s medical director, said prevention programs remain a cornerstone of the strategy to improve health and lower costs.
“While we have made encouraging progress in many areas, this serves as a reminder of the importance of our efforts to increase access and affordability of preventive health care,” Smith said.
Kay Lazar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.