Massachusetts residents are some of the healthiest people in the country, according to the annual America’s Health Ranking Report, and experts attribute that to some of the state’s legislative efforts.
The Commonwealth ranked as the second healthiest state in U.S. in 2016, a move up from third place last year, in the report from not-for-profit United Health Foundation.
Hawaii kept its title as the healthiest state for the fifth consecutive year. Rounding out the top five were Connecticut (third, up from six), Minnesota (held its place at four) and Vermont (down from second in 2015).
New York remained at No. 13 and Pennsylvania moved up one spot to 28 this year. The least healthy state in 2016 was Mississippi, taking the title from the 2015 least healthy, Louisiana.
The report looks at 34 measures of a state’s health across behaviors, community and environment, policies and clinical care data.
What made Massachusetts beat out 48 other states in terms of health? Our state policies helped the commonwealth see benefits, especially since we had the lowest percentage of people who weren’t covered by insurance.
Massachusetts led the way in terms of public policy about health insurance, and Dr. John McDonough, a professor of public health practice at the Harvard School of Public Health and a former member of the state House of Representatives, said that was extremely beneficial to the state’s overall health.
“We were the first state to legislate near universal coverage for everybody, and since 2007 have had the lowest rate of uninsurance among all 50 states,” he said. “Health insurance coverage is associated with higher health status because people can get their medical needs addressed more effectively.”
Other top strengths for the state included a low incidence of obesity among residents and a high number of primary care physicians, but Massachusetts saw some health challenges as well, according to the report.
Hurting Massachusetts was a large disparity between health and education level, the twelfth highest incidence of Salmonella in the country and a high amount of excessive drinking — Massachusetts came in at No. 12 in terms of the most residents reporting binge or chronic drinking.
“We do have an aggressive response against drunk driving and the elimination of happy hour and things like that, so you would expect to see a better result [with alcohol] than what we see,”McDonoughsaid.
Connie Chan, an associate dean and professor in UMass Boston’s graduate school Department of Public Policy and Public Affairs, noted that the state voted in 2010 to eliminate the tax on alcohol.
Boston City Council just this week rejected a proposed 2 percent alcohol tax, even though the revenue would have been directed to combat a public health issue. The money would have gone to “addiction and substance abuse programs and services targeting the areas of prevention, intervention and treatment,” according to a statement from Councilor Bill Linehan.
Massachusetts recently legalized the recreational use of marijuana, which opponents say is not healthy, but Chan said that she has heard anecdotally that more accessible marijuana may curb how much some people drink.
Still, Chan noted that there are a lot of other public policies in Massachusetts that contribute to the health of residents that may not be so obvious, such as legislation around bike lanes and outdoor spaces like parks.
“Those are the kinds of policies that would make people healthier that I think Massachusetts has been investing in and can do more of,” she said. “Cities and towns in the state put an emphasis of their money on policies on preserving green spaces and parks. [In Boston,] I feel like we’re pretty well known for the bike trail around the Charles River.”
The collective health of a state’s residents can’t just be traced to one policy or law, both Chan and McDonough noted, but it’s obvious Massachusetts has enacted a lot of helpful legislation.
“We are a state that tends to invest in public health measures and other kinds of programs that are associated with better health,” McDonough said. “We succeed in prioritizing health and health access.”