New health rankings put NC near bottom in several categories

lbonner@newsobserver.comDecember 11, 2012 

— As legislators were discussing how to improve health care and lower costs on Tuesday, the United Health Foundation released new rankings showing the state’s population is 33rd in the nation in overall health.

Compared to other states, North Carolina ranks near the bottom in low-birth-weight babies, infant mortality and public health funding, according to rankings from the United Health Foundation, a Minnesota-based nonprofit. A relatively high percentage of the state’s residents report having diabetes.

Education, poverty and neighborhood environments help determine how healthy people are, said Pam Silberman, president and CEO of the N.C. Institute of Medicine, and states that have moved up in the rankings over the years have improved in these areas.

Silberman gave a presentation to the legislature’s oversight committee on health and human services on Tuesday. Rep. Nelson Dollar, a chairman of the oversight committee, said legislators want to look at trends and consider where lawmakers should focus their attention.

“We want to position North Carolina to have better health outcomes and do a better job without healthcare dollars,” said the Cary Republican, who is interested in driving down obesity rates.

“Everyone has been saying, unless we get a handle on that chronic condition, we’ll have a hard time driving down costs,” he said. More than 29 percent of state residents are obese, according to the national report estimate.

Silberman told the committee that a multifaceted approach that includes doctors, schools and day care centers could be effective in tackling obesity.

She presented reductions in teenage smoking as an example. A multipronged approach that included prohibitions on smoking on school grounds, state and federal cigarette tax increases, and anti-smoking television ads aimed at teenagers all contributed to the decline, she said.

“What works is addressing problems at multiple levels,” Silberman said.

Some North Carolina counties are healthier than others, according to rankings released earlier this year by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation ranked Wake and Orange counties as the state’s healthiest, while Robeson and Columbus counties were at the bottom.

There’s a connection between residents’ health and unemployment rates, the percentage of people with health insurance, and child poverty, said Beth Lovette, health department director for Watauga, Ashe and Alleghany counties.

“We are doing pretty well for a southern state, but there are certainly communities in North Carolina that are the most unhealthy places to live,” she said.

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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