CDC says SOAR should focus on substance abuse, obesity and diabetes; idea of mountaintop mining study is largely ignored

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

Shaping Our Appalachian Region, the bipartisan effort to revitalize and diversify Eastern Kentucky’s economy, will focus its health efforts on substance abuse, obesity and diabetes, SOAR Executive Director Jared Arnett told Kentucky Health News.

“We believe they have the greatest impact on our ability to create jobs and build a world class workforce,” Arnett said in an email. He said David Roberts of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, determined the priorities after spending three months at the SOAR office in Pikeville.

The priorities differ from those put forth by SOAR’s Health Working Group, which made two major recommendations after a series of public forums: a coordinated health program in schools, and a study of the health effects of large-scale surface mining. However, when SOAR published the working groups’ ideas a few weeks later, it listed only the “shortest-term recommendations” and did not include the mining study. No recommendations appear on the health group’s webpage.

At the health session of SOAR’s “Strategy Summit” May 11, Dee Davis of the Whitesburg-based Center for Rural Strategies asked the moderator/presenter, Jennifer “Jenna” Seymour of the CDC, what if anything was being done about the recommendation. Seymour replied that she wasn’t aware of it, Al Cross reported for the Appalachian Kentucky page of The Rural Blog.  
“That dismayed me,” Cross writes. Later, upon raising his hand and being recognized by Seymour, he told her and the audience that it was “disconcerting and almost unbelievable” that she was unaware of the recommendation about mountaintop mining. Seymour replied that she had, in fact, heard about it.
Cross wrote, “Noting that the Pike County Fiscal Court Room was nearly full, I told Seymour that a lot of people had attended meetings and made their concerns known, and that even though this issue was “a hot potato,” because of the coal industry’s role, she needed to “go back to the powers that be, and tell them there’s a room full of people who want answers.”

Cross wrote that he was not for or against a study on the health effects of mountaintop mining, and ” Unless they’re writing opinion pieces, journalists aren’t supposed to take sides,” he wrote. “But they do need to speak up when issues of broad community concern aren’t being addressed, especially when those concerns have been solicited.”

The SOAR working groups concluded their meetings last summer and submitted their final reports. Since then, the SOAR executive board has decided to launch a SOAR Advisory Council and hold annual roundtables, or more as needed. They have made a request for a community health representative to be appointed to serve on this council, and Arnett said he expects this person to be appointed by June 1 or so. 

In addition, a follow-up CDC representative will be assigned to the SOAR office for one year beginning in late summer to help put together a strategic plan to address the three areas of focus recommended by the CDC at the summit. This person will also lead a Community Health Action Team for SOAR to work on building a blueprint for improved public health in the region, Arnett said.

“We are focused on working with our corporate partners and the Community Health roundtable to address these issues identified by the CDC on what can have the broadest reach and the greatest impact,” Arnett said. A full report of all of the CDCs recommendations is expected in the near future, he said.

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