Leaders assemble to address Gary health crisis

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Director Dr. Reuben C. Rutland and Dr. Danita Johnson Hughes

By Stephanie Gadlin, Special to the Gary Crusader

First in a Two Part Series

With a rise in health care costs, political attacks on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and loss of coverage by low-income families, high poverty municipalities are struggling to find ways to eradicate a myriad of health care issues that contribute to dubbing Indiana as one of the unhealthiest states in the nation.

According to the Alliance for a Healthier Indiana, the state ranks 38th among all states in health care. The assessment came this week during two town hall meetings held in Gary and East Chicago, IN that included a Who’s Who of community leaders, public safety workers, health care providers, and elected officials.

During the “Indiana State of Our Health Roadshow Town Hall,” panelists labored over methods that can be implemented to reduce the growing health crisis impacting families across demographics.  Members of the coalition noted that while Indiana ranks among the worst in the nation on critical health measures like tobacco use, obesity and infant mortality, Lake County–and particularly Gary–actually fares much worse.

For example, in Lake County 18 percent of adults, including nine percent of pregnant women, consume tobacco products; however, in Gary, more than one quarter of its adult residents (or 26 percent) smoke. While 33 percent of Lake County adults are considered obese—higher than the state average of 32 percent and the national average of 28.8 percent—for Gary, a staggering 45 percent of adult residents are obese.

Via an emailed statement, Gary Public Health Director Dr. Reuben C. Rutland wrote city residents also suffer from high bouts of cardiovascular disease, colon cancer and trauma due to violence and “[the] three highways dissecting the city and a steel mill that supplies our trauma center with a number of patients.”

Methodist Hospital president and CEO Raymond Grady explained, “The Alliance really aims to bring attention to the needs of [the] state of Indiana to increase its public spending in order to address many areas which Hoosiers’ health status lags that of residents of other states, with a special focus on four areas: tobacco use, obesity, opioid abuse and infant mortality.” He went on to say, “The purpose of the health alliance is to bring this issue to the attention of local communities, of identifying solutions and rallying support for changes at the state levels to provide additional resources to address these issues at our local level.”

Dr. Danita Johnson Hughes, president and CEO of Edgewater Health and a nationally-known expert in community wellness, shared Grady’s sentiments. “Access to care is important. When people don’t have access because resources aren’t available or you can’t pay the providers, it has an effect,” she said.

In February, President Donald Trump approved a request by Indiana to require certain Medicaid recipients to work or volunteer at least 20 hours a week in order to qualify for benefits. For the first time, unemployed residents can lose health care coverage even though the provision does not offer any job search assistance, job training, transportation, childcare or other services that can help people retain work.

“When they attack health care, the insurance companies don’t want to pay which means this impacts our workforce, overall, as well as patient care, ” said Hughes, whose client base is mostly low-income. “We are talking about the overall quality of life for people.

If they can’t work, they can’t eat, they can’t afford rent and that leads to stress and poor health. It’s a cycle.”

U.S. Rep. Peter Visclosky (1st) could not be reached for comment by Crusader deadline.

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