‘Stars are aligned’ for making Ky. healthier, and let’s start with schools, health commissioner tells County Health Rankings event

Kentucky is poised to make itself healthier, and one key push needs to be making schools smoke-free, the two top officials in charge of the effort told a gathering of state and local health leaders and activists in Frankfort on Wednesday.


“We know our health statistics are bad, but the stars are aligned for Kentucky, and the time to get healthy is now,” Dr. Stephanie Mayfield, the state commissioner of public health, said at a gathering held to highlight “Signs of Progress” in conjunction with the national release of the fifth annual County Health Rankings.

“We’re seeing changes that we haven’t seen in a generation or multiple generations,” Mayfield said, such as the expansion of Medicaid under federal health reform; the enrollment of almost 400,000 Kentuckians in the program or private coverage through the state insurance exchange, Kynect; and a coordinated effort by state agencies to make specific improvements in Kentucky’s health statistics.

“I can’t stop smiling about this,” Mayfield said of the effort, called Kyhealthnow. “This is public health at its best,” using accountable strategies to reach measurable goals. “These are strategies we need to implement across our state,” she said, “but we need to do it in a  way that’s not condemning to people and helps them make healthy choices.”

Mayfield is co-chair of the effort, headed by Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson under appointment from Gov. Steve Beshear. Both of them said it must include a stringer effort to ban smoking on school grounds.

Abramson (cn|2 image)

“Only 33 of our 173 school districts have tobacco-free policies,” Abramson said with a touch of incredulity, repeating the line for impact. “We have areas where the government has stepped up [with a smoking ban] and the school districts haven’t; we have areas where the school districts have stepped up and the governments haven’t; and unfortunately, we have lots of areas throughout the commonwealth of Kentucky where neither has occurred”

Mayfield said, “It is disgraceful that all of our schools are not smoke-free. . . . We need to target our children,” because the tobacco companies are.

In a national County Health Rankings video, Grant County School Supt. Sally Skinner said, “We have for some time realized the connection between healthy students and strong academic results.” Grant County was recognized nationally for focusing on its health ranking as a motive for improvement, and for raising it from 89th to 60th out of 120 counties.

The program also featured videos of three other counties (Floyd, Franklin and Todd) that have used the rankings and associated data to motivate their efforts. The counties are representative of many others “that are doing something” to improve community health, said Dr. Connie White, clinical director for the state Department of Public Health.

Floyd County was recognized for its work against diabetes; Franklin County was noted for its creation of smoke-free environments; and Todd County was recognized for starting a farmers’ market to make more fresh produce available.

“There are so many exciting efforts under way in Kentucky,” said Katie Wehr of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which funds the County Health Rankings and Roadmaps. She praised the three health departments that have won national accreditation: Franklin County, Three Rivers and Northern Kentucky. “You are demonstrating to the rest of the nation what’s possible.”

The foundation held similar events in Rockingham County, North Carolina, and Amherst, N.Y., a Buffalo suburb, to mark the fifth anniversary of the rankings and the importance of the roadmaps, which give communities guidance on campaigns to improve community health.

“The rankings are the starting point for the conversation,” said Kitty Jerome, director of the Roadmaps to Health Action Center at the University of Wisconsin. “The number is not as important as the people in this room.”

Abramson said it’s unfortunate that so many Kentucky counties are chronically at or near the bottom of the rankings. “Many areas simply aren’t getting the message,” he said, “and anything we can do to spread that message and beat that drum is very important. . . . “We’ve got to do something in a coordinated, collaborative way to bring about an enhanced environment of health for our citizens.”

“We are all on the same page,” said Jane Chiles, chair of the Friedell Committee for Health System Transformation, which co-sponsored the event and is working with other groups on a statewide, county-by-county campaign to improve the state’s health. “It is a winning collaboration going forward that will result in a healthier Kentucky.”

Former University of Kentucky president Lee Todd, who emceed the event, said the state needs to declare war on what he calls “Kentucky’s uglies” to get citizens and communities motivated to improve their health. He acknowledged that the term “war” is “a little tough-sounding, but I think it’s time we get mad enough about some of the statistics. . . . If we had one one-hundredth the interest in moving our health rankings as we do our basketball rankings, we would be a top-ten state.”

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