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Several Northwest Indiana counties share health care concerns

Updated: April 8, 2014 9:06PM



Lake and Porter counties are on the opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of health outcomes in the state of Indiana, but they face many of the same issues, according to the County Health Rankings released last week.

Lake County ranked 77th in health outcomes and 87th in health factors among Indiana’s 92 counties, while Porter County ranked 14th in health outcomes and 12th in health factors. This is the fifth year that the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have released the findings, which measure social and economic factors, clinical care measures, and quality-of-life indicators.

Some of the challenging issues facing Lake County include the level of violent crime, children in poverty, smoking, obesity, sexually transmitted diseases, unemployment, drunken-driving deaths, and a high rate of uninsured residents.

Porter County faces a rising obesity rate (about 5 percent in the past three years), almost double the number of chlamydia cases (a sexually transmitted disease) in the past seven years, and rising child poverty and unemployment.

John Whitcomb, strategic advisor for Franciscan Alliance hospitals, said local hospitals over the past 18 months have been examining more closely the health care data in the communities they serve, partly as directed by the Affordable Care Act.

“We looked at a lot of the information sources including the County Health Rankings and look at priorities,” Whitcomb said. “For example, in Lake County it’s no surprise the underlying health issues in Crown Point are in many ways different than what we might find in Hammond, so we looked at each of our hospitals.”

The data shows that sometimes health conditions impact demographic groups more severely, such as diabetes among Hispanics or hypertension among African-American men, HealthLinc CEO Beth Wrobel said.

“The uninsured rate is not all that different between Lake and Porter,” Wrobel said. “At all our clinics throughout Northwest Indiana, Porter County has the highest rate of uninsured because many are not poor enough for Medicaid.”

Methodist Hospitals, Franciscan Alliance, and Community Healthcare System jointly collected the Community Health Information Assessment data, but they are using that information in different ways.

Diabetes, heart disease and cancer are big problems in Northwest Indiana, as they are in many communities. Whitcomb said screening and management classes are helpful to some patients, but “that’s only making half the circuit.”

“We’re gearing up to try to identify more at-risk populations, and try to come up with ways to monitor patients over time,” Whitcomb said. “St. Margaret is developing a project to identify people through the early detection of lung cancer. We’ll match them up with care, which might result in a cure or improvement in their condition.

“As we learn what works, then we can say it’s a proven best practice and reach more people,” Whitcomb said.

Methodist Hospitals’ vice president for human resources and marketing Alex Horvath said they are reaching out to churches and faith-based groups to try to connect with more people.

“Whether it’s through a visiting nurse program some have, or a pullout in the bulletin, it’s about accessing people we don’t always,” Horvath said. “Since the nutrition component is really important, we also have the opportunity to link with the city of Gary and Merrillville to see what we can do in collaboration with farmers markets, to provide more access to fresh fruits and vegetables in the community.”

Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, sits on the Public Health Committee in the Indiana General Assembly and he helped pass a ban on smoking in restaurants and public places.

“Indiana is the sixth-largest in terms of state tobacco production, so for some people it’s their livelihood,” Brown said. “They were a major obstacle we faced every year to pass a smoking ban.”

Brown said Gov. Mike Pence could help public health immensely by approving a Medicaid expansion for people making up to 138 percent of the poverty level.

“It’s regrettable that our governor determined that we don’t need the Medicaid expansion,” Brown said. “That’s 400,000 folks that would be covered.”

HealthLinc serves patients from a six-county area, including Lake, Porter, LaPorte, St. Joseph, Starke and Newton counties, so there are a lot of needs that go beyond health care, Wrobel said.

“There are so many societal barriers,” Wrobel said. “We started a plan called Moving Starke County Ahead, with four different initiatives, including scholarships for kids to attend preschools, providing mentors for Starke County Kids after-school program, the Skill Center, which helps the unemployed gain skills in areas like auto repair.”



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