Our Views: To improve health, Rock County must focus on bad habits, poverty

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Saturday, April 5, 2014

Rising health costs under President Obama's Affordable Care Act are a hot topic.

Workers see premiums and other out-of-pocket costs rise as employer health plans add new requirements and help pay for the previously uninsured and those in poverty or in poor health who are signing up for Obamacare. Retirees howl about more possible hits to Medicare Advantage plans to likewise offset Obamacare costs. Many low-wage workers complain Obamacare premiums are too expensive. All are legitimate concerns.

When it comes to health costs, however, many Rock County residents are their own worst enemies.

We eat too much and too many of the wrong things. We exercise little. Many of us drink too much or use tobacco. Many young people engage in unprotected sex, spreading diseases and leading to teenage pregnancies that risk premature births.

These bad habits are reflected in new annual rankings from the UW Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Rock County again finished a pitiful 62nd out of Wisconsin's 72 counties.

It was good to read that we trimmed our percentage of adult smokers, reduced our rate of obesity and improved physical inactivity. However, we moved only a point or two—not enough to halt the parade to doctors' offices.

As county health officer Karen Cain suggests, to really improve overall health, we need to fight poverty and boost education. Ozaukee County, ranked No. 1 in health, is Wisconsin's wealthiest county. Generally speaking, Cain noted, counties with the highest socioeconomic rankings have the best health scores.

“The more educated people are, the more their overall health is better,” Cain told Gazette reporter Gina Duwe in a March 28 story.

Cain isn't suggesting poor people are too ignorant for their own health. Instead, she sees good jobs as paths to affording optimum health care.

“If you have a good economy, people are more likely to have health insurance, are more likely to seek care and are more likely to know how to improve their health,” she said Friday.

It's worth noting that Rock County ranks close to the middle in median household income and that joblessness here, though still high, fell in the past year. Still, abject poverty plagues pockets of the county, and the percentage of kids living in poverty rose. On average, one of every four kids you see walking to school lives in poverty.

Officials see ways to improve the county's health ranking. Since July 2012, they've been using a $450,000 federal grant to boost physical activity in gym and regular classrooms, to buy a cafeteria salad bar and start a school garden in Edgerton, to increase access to local produce, to educate kids about the dangers of candy-flavored cigarettes and to encourage more apartment complexes to go smoke free.

Unfortunately, the grant runs out in September.

Hospitals and the county health department also are teaming up to complete a community health needs assessment. Federal law requires one every three years. Besides the bad lifestyle choices noted above, the last report also found we don't use enough preventive health screenings, lack sufficient treatment for mental health and substance abuse issues and have woefully inadequate dental health.

Hospitals and health officials will use assessment data to better focus future programming. Meanwhile, municipal and school officials should keep in mind how boosting education and incomes can help us stay healthier. Each of us also should consider how halting our bad habits might save us health care dollars.

Cain says Rock County is blessed with a trail system for exercise and opportunities to buy healthy foods at farmers markets and groceries.

She added: “It's not impossible to change our personal habits to improve our health.”

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