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By Fred Hiers
The newly formed Marion County Health Alliance whose goal is to try and curb the county’s poor health rankings, took another step Wednesday toward making area residents healthier.
The alliance, which now has nearly 70 organization members, met yesterday at the College of Central Florida’s Webber Center. The nonprofit’s executive committee chairman, Dr. Mel Seek, proposed six area healthcare needs that the group should address to improve county health. The alliance agreed to focus on the half-dozen initiatives.
The two of six it’s believed would show early benefits are:
*Early prevention and treatment for behavioral health, especially to reduce emergency room visits by people seeking treatment for mental health and substance abuse.
*Reducing the need for people to use local emergency rooms for dental-related issues.
Two medium-range initiatives the alliance approved are:
*Tobacco use and smoking prevention and cessation in adults and adolescents.
*The prevention and treatment of diabetes.
The alliance also agreed to focus on the long-range goal of trying to prevent obesity in adults and children.
The sixth goal, said Seek, is a collaborative attempt to educate Marion County about treating and preventing chronic diseases.
Some of the goals will try and address chronic diseases, he said.
“Chronic disease is so big there’s little money left for prevention,” Seek said.
The hope is to better manage chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes so more effort can be put toward prevention, he said.
Seek said that the alliance’s approach should include:
*a long-term vision
*going after low-hanging fruit that will pay off quickly
*collecting data and measuring what works
*educating the public about health issues and healthy behavior
*measuring the cost of care per capita
*making the public’s healthcare experience positive
*changing the culture to healthier behavior
Alliance members also moved to join one of five work groups that would report to the alliance’s executive committee. The work groups are in alignment with the six goals.
An important buy-in would be that of the Marion County Hospital District, which leases Munroe Regional Medical Center, and has invested its $212 million lease payment with plans to use profits to fund local healthcare initiatives. The district is also an alliance member and one of its trustees sits on its executive committee.
The district trustees hope to start taking grant applications next month and awarding money early next year. The amount of money the group will give away each year will vary but is expected to be between $1 million and $2 million.
District trustee members have already said, however, that deciding which of the county’s healthcare issues to focus on and selecting organizations that know how to address those problems won’t be easy.
Health Alliance executive committee Ed Dean said before the meeting that while the district will decide its own community health issues to focus on, they will likely be similar to those of the health alliance.
And because they are likely to be similar, they will likely to be funded by the district, he said.
The alliance also agreed Wednesday to send its six health issues to the district trustees for review.
Dean reminded the alliance members that regardless of the district’s potential for funding, their goals have a wider scope.
“This group is going to drive the whole healthcare (initiative) in the county,” he said.
But the district’s ability to finance some of the alliance’s goals is important, Dean said.
“The district has money and that’s a blessing,” he said during an executive committee meeting Tuesday.
The money the district can bring to the table could make the difference between making a dent in the county’s healthcare problems and not, he said.
“Why some communities don’t have any money is why they don’t make any progress,” Dean said.
Dean is also a consultant to the district trustees.
Seek said that even without district money, the dozens of organizations that make up the alliance and provide healthcare services to the community would continue their efforts.
Jon Kurtz, the district’s executive director, said before the alliance meeting that the alliance could play an important role in advising the district. Otherwise, the district’s efforts to identify healthcare issues and fund them might not be any better than a “crapshoot.”
District trustee and alliance executive committee member David Cope said the district is sometimes in a healthcare “information vacuum” and that the alliance needed the alliance’s advice.
The alliance will have its work cut out.
Men in Marion County live an average of two years less than Florida men. Women live an average of about 18 months less. Marion County ranked 42nd out of Florida’s 67 counties for poor health in the most recent Robert Wood Johnson Foundation County Health Rankings, which measures Floridians’ overall health.
In 2013, Marion County emergency rooms saw more than 28,700 visits attributed to mental health issues. The resulting rate, calculated by considering population, was more than 50 percent higher than the state rate, according to a recent WellFlorida study.
When just patients younger than 18 are concerned, the disparity with the state is even greater. Nearly 1,500 people younger than 18 went to Marion County emergency rooms because of mental health problems in 2013.
*In 2013, Marion County had a suicide rate of 20.9 per 100,000 residents, compared to 15.0 for Florida’s average.
*Nearly 15 percent of Marion County’s adults are diabetic.
*More than one-third of residents are obese.
*Nearly one-third of people live sedentary lifestyles with no regular exercise.
*Median Medicaid enrollment in Marion County, a sign of poverty, is higher than the Florida average.
*There are fewer hospital beds per capita than statewide, and more “food deserts,” as well.
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