Monday, October 3, 2011

Engaging Communities to Improve Resident Health

In recent weeks, reports from the US Census Bureau have highlighted the bleak conditions in many communities. With the national poverty rate at an all-time high of 15.1%, it is not surprising that healthcare coverage has declined to an all-time low. According to the recently released 2010 Current Population Survey, the United States has the highest number and percentage of uninsured citizens ever reported. Minorities face particular hardship when it comes to health coverage. While 15.4% of Whites were left uninsured in 2010, nearly 21% of Black and 31% of Hispanics were left without coverage.

Although a vital aspect of healthcare, insurance coverage is only one aspect of quality healthcare. In addition to a lack of insurance coverage, research suggests residential segregation and poverty rates also contribute to growing health inequalities. A recent report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies suggests that the racial composition and, most notably, poverty levels of neighborhoods ultimately affect the health of individuals. The damaging effects of these disparities are evidenced by high rates of poor health outcomes for people of color or with low incomes. Impoverished communities often face many challenges, including limited access to public transportation, a lack of grocery stories with nutritious food options and little access to good jobs or social services, such as community health centers. Residents without these essential supports are more likely to struggle with obesity, asthma and other forms of chronic health conditions.

Improving the health of individuals and communities is a challenge that requires comprehensive solutions and significant attention to various issues, such as transportation, access to primary health centers, education and policies that may prohibit access to healthy food options. In response to increasing health disparities, many organizations – including the Federal government – have implemented programs and provided resources that communities can use in addressing health disparities. 

The PolicyLink Center for Health and Place, for example, has developed several tools that communities can use in advocating for improved access to nutritious food. These tools provide guidance on how communities can attract quality food retailers or advocate for improvements in the quality of food already in local stores, for example. Similarly, increasing access to community health centers that offer both primary and preventative health services is a critical component of resident health. In response to this need, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced over $10 million in Affordable Care Act grants to support 129 organizations across the nation striving to become community health centers. Many of the awarded organizations are already community-based health centers that plan to use the grant to provide more comprehensive primary care services and/or expand services to the larger community. According Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, these new health centers will provide access to healthcare for millions of individuals while also sparking economic growth by creating a source of local employment in communities. An additional HHS initiative – The Community Transformation Grants – seeks to reduce health disparities by addressing the physical, social and emotional needs of residents, as well as providing quality preventative services in the context of local community needs.

Additional Resources:, USDA Unveils New Food Desert Locator
The Department of Health and Human Services, About the Healthy Food Financing Initiative
Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Community Transformation Grants
Center for the Study of Social Policy, The Opportunities for Communities in the Affordable Care Act provides a summary of the existing and upcoming funding provisions from the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that can have an impact on local community change efforts

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