The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us lots of things, one of which is the importance of public health and especially the pressing need to prevent those health conditions that make scores of Minnesotans more vulnerable to diseases like COVID. That’s why the proposal in the Minnesota Senate’s budget to cut $10 million from the Minnesota Statewide Health Improvement Partnership (SHIP) is not only unwise, if it actually occurs it will be costly to all Minnesotans in both lives and dollars.
SHIP was established in 2008 by a bipartisan vote of the Minnesota Legislature to help address the growing human and economic costs associated with diet- and tobacco-related diseases — the same diseases that make people more vulnerable to COVID. Since it became operational in 2010, after years of increases, obesity rates in Minnesota have flattened and commercial tobacco-use rates have declined. As of 2017, the last time financial impacts were calculated, thanks to SHIP and others, $260 million in tobacco-related costs were averted as were $365 million in diet-related health care costs.
SHIP operates in every county and Tribal Nation in Minnesota by providing grants to local partnerships to carry out local initiatives designed to reduce diet- and tobacco-related diseases through healthy eating, active living and tobacco-use reduction strategies. While local initiatives follow established standards — 86% of SHIP’S on-the-ground-activities are rated as “proven effective” or “promising” by the standards of Results First Minnesota — they are homegrown because the program recognizes that what is needed to improve health in Morrison or Scott Counties is likely different far different than Ramsey or Hennepin Counties.
SHIP is having real impacts in spite of the fact that marketing by the sugary drink industry has increased by 26 percent since 2013 — roughly the years in which SHIP has been operating. The fact that SHIP has helped to flatten obesity rates even considering that its budget has been dwarfed by expenditures by the sugary drink industry, whose products are the leading cause of weight gain, is an amazing accomplishment. Aggressive, targeted marketing by the tobacco and vaping industries directed at addicting another generation of Minnesota’s youth is also continuing.
Conditions that lead to tobacco use, unhealthy eating and a lack of physical activity have been generations in the making. There is no “magic switch” to change these factors; change will only occur through hard work and smart, effective community-based strategies — the type of work and strategies SHIP is engaged in at the local level.
‘Robbing Peter to pay Paul’
The Senate budget proposes to take the $10 million cut from SHIP and instead provide it to local public health agencies. Ironically, the Minnesota Local Public Health Association, which represents those agencies, has testified against the Senate’s proposal to take the money from SHIP because they recognize that while local public health needs funding increases, those increases should not come at the expense of public health, which is what would happen if the Senate gets its way. In other words, the Senate’s proposal is a classic example of the saying, “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
Highly credible studies and analyses on the health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are showing a direct link between hospitalization and death rates and those who have diet- and tobacco-related health conditions, especially among those who have long faced systemic health and social inequities. Those findings have all noted that to reduce health impacts caused by future pandemics, proactive, community-based interventions that invest in local public health to create “nutrition and physical activity opportunities” are needed to prevent future crisis associated with future pandemics. That’s exactly the work SHIP and its partners at the local level are engaged in.
Unfortunately, there always seems to be winners and losers in legislative sessions. If the Senate’s cut to SHIP and public health are enacted, the losers will be Minnesota families who will continue to be faced with significant health challenges due to diet- and tobacco-related diseases, as well as Minnesota’s taxpayers, health insurance policy holders and users of the health care system who will be forced to continue to bear the costs of those diseases. The winners will of course be the tobacco, sugary drink and junk-food industries whose marketing of their products will go unopposed and thereby will be able to profit off yet another generation of Minnesotans.
Annie Krapek, interim CEO of Twin Cities Medical Society, is the co-chair of the Minnesotans for Healthy Kids Coalition, a statewide partnership of medical, health care, health insurance and community-based organizations that work to reduce the factors that lead to poor health among Minnesota’s children.
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