Contract with the Community: Increase community health

A special project by Contributor John Guevara, with Managing Editor Shane Nicholson

In February, we introduced our “Contract with the Community,” a 10 item list of simple reforms and ideas intended to bring about a more open, honest and transparent government. Over the coming weeks, we will explore in-depth each of those 10 items. This week, we look at No. 9, “Increase community health.”

Health care is on our minds. With an administration committed to changing how health insurance and health care is provided in America, people are concerned.

And they should be concerned because we know that better health means higher overall income, better academic performance, lower government cost for health care and incarceration. It makes sense to focus on our health at all levels of government.

Winnebago County and the Rockford area are seeing a boom in health care services. Our three primary local health systems are spending millions of dollars to expand and offer more services. It is important, while they expand, that the needs for our community are met.

The American Hospital Association says in a 2016 report on the “Next Generation of Community Health” that local health care facilities must learn to align their goals and programs with those of their community.

“In short, through focusing on community health, the hospital field is devising new ways to improve the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being of people and communities. The next generation of community health will be integrally aligned with this care evolution and will serve as the foundation for total population health.”

The AHA calls on local health care providers to focus on three key elements: 1. Spectrum of services offered by the hospital or health care system; 2. Locations where care will be provided; and 3. Partnerships through which that care is facilitated.

The Winnebago County Health Department has taken the lead in identifying what the county’s health status is and what can be done about it. In a 229 page study published in 2016 called IPLAN 2020, the Health Department states that Winnebago County is ranked 88th of the 102 counties in Illinois.

A county’s “health” is measured by an index of factors including Length of Life, Quality of Life, and Health Factors (including Behaviors, Clinical Care, Social and Economic Factors, and Physical Environment).

That’s not all. IPLAN references a partnership between the Robert Wood Foundation and the University of Wisconsin to establish metrics for measuring the health of counties all across America. Winnebago County is the only county in the region to rank in the bottom third.

As dire as our respective health straits are, the goals the Health Department has are optimistic. The plan is for the Winnebago County to rank in the top third of Illinois counties by 2020.

There are three priorities that IPLAN identifies as crucial to the effort: 1. Maternal and Child Health; 2. Mental/Behavioral Health; and 3. Violence Prevention. The plan identifies specific community partners and an action plan for each. Public officials should familiarize themselves with the IPLAN to understand their respective roles in attaining the goals set in the plan, and how meeting the goals for each priority will benefit taxpayers.

In 2013 the Public Safety Committee of the Winnebago County Board worked with Chief Judge Joe McGraw to find funding through the Affordable Care Act to sign up persons booked in the county jail for Medicaid. The reason was because there are a significant number of people booked in the jail who suffer from mental health disease and/or drug addiction.

Data presented to the committee demonstrated that providing treatment for mental health and drug addiction would save taxpayers at the local level from providing those services in the jail. Unfortunately, area providers were unwilling or unable to meet the demand for their services. Prioritizing mental health and drug addiction treatment, will reduce jail and court costs both in the short and long term.

State Rep. Litesa Wallace last year advocated for more community input in the decisions of independent health care providers after MercyRockford announced plans to phase out emergency services at its west side campus. Rockford Memorial, the city’s only hospital west of the river, will shed much of its capacity to Mercy’s new hospital currently being built on East Riverside Drive, the company announced last year. Wallace said that such decisions should not be made without community input.

“Under current state law, a hospital can choose to close its doors with little review and scrutiny from those that would be affected,” Wallace said. “While hospitals in my district and across the state are private entities, they play an instrumental public role. In the event of a proposed closing, residents deserve to have their voices heard.”

As new board members, mayors, and council members examine their budgets, they should ask for detailed financial breakdowns of the costs for these services, and the benefits to their budgets. As outgoing Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey found out, local governments are very much in the health care business, whether they recognize it or not. As the community considers and votes to approve expansion plans, area leaders should know what the community needs are and demand that those needs be prioritized moving forward.

And we should celebrate the health victories we are having. The Rockford Park District is an award winning unit of government that offers numerous activities for district kids, programs with an emphasis on health and many at little to no cost for economically disadvantaged residents.

Youth Against Violence is a program that teaches drama, marching band, and dance at the Mendelssohn Club in Rockford, offering area students an alternative to the ersatz family associations of the streets for involvement in very physical dramatic and musical arts.

Winnebago County Board member Burt Gerl, a strong advocate for the program, says, “I’m a firm believer in the fact that discipline and structure are key factors to a strong and healthy lifestyle. And beginning early in life is important, and Youth Against Violence teaches kids as young as five these important values.”

Patriots Gateway, Winnebago County Forest Preserves, and area school districts are all partners in helping provide healthy lifestyle education for our children. Public officials should engage and understand the options to know what works and what doesn’t in delivering healthy outcomes for our community.

Better health means better happier lives. It is in our personal interest and the public interest to achieve both.

Read the rest of our Contract with the Community series.
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