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U.S. Surgeon General Visits Somerville, Touts Prevention

State public health commissioner says Somerville provides a national model for effectively tackling health problems such as obesity, lack of physical activity and smoking.

Regina Benjamin, surgeon general of the United States, was in Somerville Friday morning to talk about a $1.57 million federal grand awarded to Middlesex County designed to improve public health.

The grant is part of a national effort, spearheaded by the Affordable Care Act, to prevent illness and disease before they start.

Preventative health measures

Speaking at the on Washington Street, Benjamin said, "Health does not occur in the doctor's office [or] in the hospitals only."

Rather, she said, preventative health—eating right, getting physical activity, avoiding tobacco and excessive drinking—is what's really required to stay healthy and, importatnly, keep health care costs down.

"The lack of prevention takes a devastating toll," she said, adding the cost of treating heart disease in America is $444 billion a year, and a large chunk of that money goes to combating disease that could have been prevented if people lived healthier lifestyles.

Preventing medicine is a key part of the Affordable Care Act, Benjamin said, and the $1.57 million Community Prevention Grant awarded to Middlesex County is funded by that act. Using that money, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council are partnering with communities in Middlesex County to support preventative health efforts as part of a program called Mass in Motion.

The surgeon general said, "Here, in New England, on average, you're the healthiest corner of the United States," and in reference to the Massachusetts health care system, she said, "Health reform is working here."

John Auerbach, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, said, "We want people to be well and we want their use of the health care system to be as limited as possible."

The Somerville model

In looking for examples of best practices in the field of preventative health, "The most effective program, with the best evidence, was right here in our back yard," said Auerbach, referring to Somerville's Shape Up Somerville program, which encourages healthy lifestyles, physical activity and proper nutrition.

Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, speaking about the program, said the effort to encourage healthier lifestyles is an "adaptive problem" because you need to change the hearts and minds of people.

"Changing the mindset of an entire community is a challenge," he said, and changing the national mindset is a "monumental" challenge.

Curtatone also said "systems" are a major factor in determining the health of the city's population. Interstate 93, which cuts through Somerville, has isolated parts of the city, taken away public transportation options and negatively impacted health, he said.

Somerville is the densest city in New England, and Curtatone noted that currently 15 percent of the city's population lives near a public transportation node. When the Green Line extension comes to Somerville—Curtatone is emphatic it will—85 percent of the population will live near a transportation node. That, he argued, will have a massive benefit to public health.

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