Friday, May 07, 2021

Montanans trust public health

by Emily Coyle, Andy Hunthausen and Dale J. Seifert
| April 25, 2021 12:00 AM

Montana’s response to the COVID pandemic has put our state’s public health system in the spotlight, as well as into the crosshairs.

Through numerous bills this session, members of the Montana Legislature have sought to attack our state’s public health system and insert politics and bureaucracy into the process of making decisions that keep our communities safe and healthy.

However, a new poll indicates that these efforts by legislators are driven more by special interests and ideology than by what Montana voters actually want. In fact, when it comes to making decisions regarding health concerns, Montana voters trust health officials more than politicians by a margin of more than 4-to-1.

The survey was funded by the American Heart Association and American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and carried out by the Republican polling firm New Bridge Strategy. It shows that Montanans believe that the state’s board of health system works well and that citizens trust the members of these bodies, who are appointed by local elected officials, to debate and make sound, science-based decisions that protect community health.

Specifically, the poll shows that 70 percent of voters place their trust in local boards of health, while just 17 percent prefer elected officials to make health decisions. This consensus is true across the state and across party lines, which may be why voters also reject policies proposed by the Legislature that would limit local decision-making.

More than two-thirds of Montana voters reject proposals that would require health boards and health officers to get approval and authorization by elected officials before acting to protect public health. The vast majority of voters – 69 percent – prefer to maintain the status quo, in which health boards and health officers can act quickly, efficiently and independently to address local health situations before illness spreads and lives are lost.

Voters recognize that adding in more bureaucracy and politicizing health decisions puts citizens’ lives and health at risk when communities are faced with disease outbreaks, contaminated drinking water, food-borne illnesses or other health emergencies.

Additionally, more than 77 percent of voters reject proposals that would prevent communities and counties from putting in place new local health standards and to get rid of some previous standards that affect local businesses, such as tattoo parlors, hotels, day cares, and restaurants. Across party lines and across the state, voters don’t want to see state politicians take away our freedom to make such decisions at a local level.

More than two-thirds of Montana voters say that local boards of health and health officers should be able to set standards and take action to address local health situations without being subject to additional review and authorization. And more than three-quarters (77 percent) of Montana voters say that local communities should be able to set and keep standards in place for local businesses.

Finally, the poll also shows that a stunning 94 percent of Montana voters agree that a healthy economy depends on a healthy, productive workforce. We won’t have that if politics and bureaucracy impede communities’ ability to make smart health decisions in a timely, efficient way.

We urge legislators to dismiss whatever agendas are winding their way through the Capitol this session and act according to the wishes and best interests of all Montanans.

Emily Coyle is public health consultant with Montana Association of Health Care Purchasers; Andy Hunthausen is a member of the Lewis and Clark Health Board and Chair of the County Commission; Dale J. Seifert is a member of the Pondera County Health Board and chair of the County Commission.