County to seek state funds for obesity, tobacco-use prevention effortsWashington County public health officials are looking to state grants to help tackle some of the county's top health issues like obesity and chronic diseases associated with smoking and poor health.
By: Hank Long, South Washington County Bulletin
Washington County public health officials are looking to state grants to help tackle some of the county's top health issues like obesity and chronic diseases associated with smoking and poor health.
County commissioners voted 3-2 April 7 to submit a grant proposal to the state Department of Health that, if approved, would give the county's public health department $75,000 to begin working on localizing the Statewide Health Improvement Program. The program, which was approved during the 2008 legislative session, draws money from the state healthcare access fund and allocates it to county public health departments to use to develop community programs that focus on organizing community leaders and using preventative steps to reduce obesity and exposure to tobacco.
Although all five Washington County board members expressed general support for county to work on promoting healthy lifestyles, commissioners Bill Pulkrabek and Gary Kriesel cast dissenting votes on the proposal, citing concerns about the proven effectiveness of the program.
The board's approval authorized the county's public health department to submit the grant proposal for phase 1 funding for the program, which would allow it to begin putting an organization of community leaders together and start planning how to initiate a program that county public health director Lowell Johnson said will draw upon leadership from four sectors: schools, communities, work sites and health care facilities.
"This group would represent a wide sector of the community," Johnson said.
If the county's request is approved, it would receive the grant effective July 1.
Once the initial organization is set, the Washington County public health department would need county board approval to apply for phase 2 funding to initiate the programs. The phase 2 funding would provide another $75,000 base funding and then a per capita funding rate to help implement health improvement programs.
Prevention or social engineering?
Washington County Commissioner Lisa Weik said she supports the idea of using community resources such as the library and schools to help promote healthy lifestyles to reduce obesity and chronic health issues in youth and families.
"I do see it as part of the county's mission and charter, certainly within our parks and libraries to educate the public," Weik said. "If we can get some of this state grant money to help with facilitating programs in the libraries to help get children and families more engaged in physical activity and choosing better nutrition options, I don't see any harm in that."
Pulkrabek said he first wanted to see more results that such programs were working in communities that have already began using the state funding like Minneapolis, St. Paul, Rochester and Willmar.
"I'd like to actually see the data and know what they are measuring, otherwise it's difficult for me to hear 'It's working, just take our word for it,'" Pulkrabek said.
Kriesel said he is concerned that the program's intervention focus is an example of "government getting into too much social engineering."
"I support the mission of this as far as providing opportunities in education but I do get concerned about (government) intervention in policy and economic regulation," Kriesel said.
Johnson said all of the state' 87 counties have submitted letters of intent to apply for the SHIP grants, but he said the process to receive full and continued funding will be competitive and results based.
"There is definitely an outcomes basis in this grant program," Johnson said.
Officials who founded the Statewide Health Improvement Program believe successful execution of the prevention aspect of the program could result in $316 million in annual healthcare cost savings.
"Prevention identifies the root cause of a lot of these health issues that come up later life," Johnson said. "The aim is to catch the problems early, and by doing so it's less costly to the system and it can be done across the population."
Examples Johnson gave the commissioners include finding ways to make school lunch menus more healthy, introducing healthy choice seminars at local libraries and advocating municipalities to take a more active role in developing their parks and recreation systems.