Community Matters: How to help fix local health crisis

With little help from Washington, Petaluma focuses on its own health.|

Some of us may not want to hear it, but we live in a country with the worst overall health outcomes of any high-income nation on the planet. According to a recent report from the Commonwealth Fund, the US now has the lowest life expectancy at birth, the highest death rates for avoidable or treatable conditions, and the highest maternal and infant mortality rates of the 11 high-income countries for which data are available.

We also have the highest rate of people with multiple chronic conditions, such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes. America’s obesity rate is nearly twice the average of its peer countries.

The high rate of chronic disease in the US is attributed to a combination of factors including insufficient exercise, poor nutrition (consisting largely of ultra-processed foods with large quantities of added sugar and sodium, while consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grains is generally lacking) excessive use of alcohol and the lack of preventative care.

Substance abuse is killing Americans young and old. The opioid epidemic has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in recent years while alcoholism rates remain high.

Untreated mental illness is widespread, with tens of millions of Americans suffering from depression, anxiety and other mood disorders. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 10 and 34.

Making matters worse is the fact that Americans see physicians less often than people in most other high-income countries. Among the 11 most affluent countries, the U.S. has among the lowest rates of practicing physicians and hospital beds and we are the only one without universal health insurance coverage.

Even though U.S. spending on health care is much higher than the other countries, the enormity of our nation’s health crisis is truly a disgrace.

Petaluma is not immune to any of this. According to recent studies, while overall well-being in Petaluma is somewhat better than the dismal picture reflected in the national averages, our community has higher than usual rates for diabetes, cancer and depression. Half of Petaluma adults are overweight or obese and two out of three residents here are struggling with their physical health. We have higher rates of tobacco use and large numbers of Petaluma teens are caught in a vaping epidemic.

Alleviating these bleak trends is the audacious goal of a new communitywide initiative that’s being led by the Healthy Petaluma District and Foundation. Formerly known as the Petaluma Health Care District, this community-owned public agency covering an area from the Marin County line to Rohnert Park was established in 1946. Since then, it has operated or supervised management of the local hospital until 2021 when it sold Petaluma Valley Hospital to Providence Health for $53 million following voter approval the prior year.

The district’s new financial assets, invested in bonds generating approximately $1.5 million in annual revenues, helped prompt the formation of the nonprofit Petaluma Health Foundation which is intended to become the primary mechanism for awarding grants and leveraging additional outside funding from national foundations to underwrite a wide range of local health program aimed at improving the overall wellness and longevity of southern Sonoma County residents.

A few months ago, the district and the city of Petaluma announced their partnership with the Blue Zones Project, a national organization that’s helped hundreds of American cities create and implement sustainable solutions to improve public health and economic vitality.

Blue Zones Project communities optimize public policies aimed at making it easier for people to adopt healthy choices in diet, exercise and smoking avoidance that reduce risks of disease and increase life expectancy. In Redondo Beach, for example, the Blue Zones Project there achieved a 68% reduction in childhood obesity rates and a 36% drop in smoking.

According to Healthy Petaluma CEO Ramona Faith, the district plans to invest an estimated $1 million annually in Blue Zones contracts over the next four years. The expected return on its investment, Faith says, is a 10-year projected savings of $85 million in local medical costs and a $133 million savings in workforce productivity losses. An additional $44 million is forecasted in direct or indirect benefits to the regional economy.

Ensuring that the community’s investment generates such enormous returns in improved health outcomes will require very careful measurement on the part of the district and its partners.

Both the city of Petaluma and Providence Health are investing $150,000 in Blue Zones work in the current fiscal year. A 20-member steering committee with representatives from the city, Petaluma City Schools, the County of Sonoma, Providence and other entities is currently soliciting public input to identify gaps in local health services so that specific programs are developed to remedy the community’s most urgent needs. Once finalized in December, the new work plan and programs are expected to launch in early 2024 with help from a newly hired four-member local Blue Zones team.

The health district has budgeted $300,000 in community grants to support local health and wellness nonprofit organizations, such as those operating drug and alcohol rehab programs, and grant requests will be solicited in the fall and awarded in the new year, says Faith.

The scope of the new Blue Zones initiative may be far reaching but will not distract, Faith says, from the district’s ongoing mission of ensuring public access to all essential hospital services. The recent closure of the birthing center, which was supposed to continue operating until at least 2025, has triggered a renewed sense of urgency among the five elected district board members to use all legal means necessary to hold Providence to the exact terms of the hospital sale agreement.

But public concerns over the birthing center’s closure are not entirely a Providence Health issue. Rather, it’s just more evidence that the country’s health care system is badly broken, and that federal action is needed to fix it. Legislation to restore a fully refundable child tax credit and adopt universal health insurance to expand access to medical care would be good first steps.

But no one is holding their breath on such meaningful action in Washington.

In the meantime, there’s a lot we can do individually and collectively to enhance our community’s overall health and longevity.

If we want ourselves and our kids to live longer, healthier lives, we now have an opportunity to make that happen. To stay informed and engaged with your locally elected representatives on how public resources should be spent to enhance health and wellness in southern Sonoma County, go to healthypetaluma.org.

(John Burns is a former publisher of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. He can be reached at john.burns@arguscourier.com)

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