Opinion

Opinion | Kate Walsh

Gun violence is a public health crisis

It seems that every week we are confronted with a new gun-related tragedy. Terrorism, mass shootings, street violence and gun accidents have traumatized communities throughout the country. Gun violence has evolved from a law enforcement issue into a true public health crisis.

President Obama recently used his executive authority to expand background check requirements for gun sales. This is an important step in the effort to keep guns out of the hands of people with violent intentions. But the status quo is unacceptable and leaders of the health care industry should use their influence to call for a national solution. The members of the health care industry share a common mission of improving health, access to care, and quality of life for the patients and customers that we serve. Individual hospitals, insurers, and pharmaceutical companies work diligently to address the health issues that impact our local communities. But we need to recognize that gun violence is a health crisis that we cannot address individually. As an industry, we can support violence prevention and increased access to mental health care in our communities while demanding that the government take action to improve the health and safety of our patients and customers through gun reforms.

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At Boston Medical Center, we are often confronted with the tragic results of gun violence. Boston Medical Center operates the largest trauma program in New England, and we care for more shooting victims than any other hospital in the region. Our clinicians and caregivers treat patients with devastating physical injuries, comfort grieving family members, and work collaboratively with community leaders, elected officials, and the Boston Police Department to try to prevent additional violence. While violence prevention programs can be instrumental in bringing hope and healing to many lives and building safer communities, more needs to be done.

In addition to the devastating human impact, there is a staggering financial cost associated with gun violence. According to health economists, gun violence costs our country more than $230 billion annually, almost as much as we spend on Medicaid in one year.

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As families in too many communities mourn lost loved ones, a bitter national debate on the topic of gun violence continues to offer no real solution to the problem. A number of national coalitions have formed to try to influence federal policy, the American Academy of Pediatrics has increased its considerable efforts to protect children from gun violence, and grass-roots organizations across the country are working to raise awareness and find solutions. It is inspiring to see the number of people who dedicate so much of their personal and professional lives to preventing violence in our communities.

While the president’s directive to expand background checks is significant progress, more must be done by the federal government to prevent gun violence in our communities. The health care industry has a key role to play in this effort. As an industry, we have built coalitions to successfully influence major national policies in the past. Hospitals and insurers had significant input in the specifics of the Affordable Care Act, and the pharmaceutical industry helped shape the creation of Medicare prescription drug benefit, commonly referred to as Medicare Part D. These two examples were complex issues that generated fierce debate and opposition throughout the political process. Today’s debate about gun violence prevention is similarly divisive. But both efforts eventually succeeded, thanks in part to the collaboration of business leaders within the health care industry. We need the same approach to stopping gun violence.

Kate Walsh is president and CEO of Boston Medical Center.
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