Health focus: Area counties show improvement in state rankings

Sue Guinn Legg • Apr 9, 2012 at 11:37 PM

The Northeast Regional Health Council made up of representatives of state health offices, public health educators and health care providers in eight area counties got an update on their future Monday from Tennessee Department of Health Deputy Commissioner Bruce Behringer.

Behringer, who served as executive director of East Tennessee State University’s Office of Rural and Community Health and Community Partnerships before being appointed in October to the newly created TDH Deputy Commissioner for Continuous Improvement and Training, said a “top to bottom” review of all state services and improving efficiency in the delivery of those services is a top priority of Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration and the reason his post was created.

Fred Adams, chairman of the Regional Health Council and director of the Northeast Tennessee Regional Health Office, provided the council members with the just-released county health rankings, which rank each of Tennessee’s 95 counties according to their overall health outcomes and multiple contributing factors to those outcomes.

Washington County was ranked 31st in the state for health outcomes, Sullivan County was ranked 33rd and Hawkins County was ranked 34th. Hancock and Johnson counties showed the most improvement in health outcomes with Johnson moving from 79th to 66th in the state and Hancock rising from 80th to 68th.

While Adams had not had enough time to comment on the broader implications of the new rankings, Adams noted that while Greene and Hawkins counties saw their overall health outcomes slip from 36th to 42nd and from 32nd to 34th respectively, Carter, Hancock, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington counties all saw improvement.

Behringer told the council new performance reviews are coming to all departments of the state government including the Department of the Health which has adopted the Baldridge Performance Excellence Plan to improve its programs. Improving operations is the focus of the plan and in its implementation Behringer asked the council members to remember the department’s stated mission is “to protect, promote and improve the health and prosperity of all people in Tennessee.”

Community health assessments will also be conducted statewide and will include both reviews of “community specific” assessments based on existing data and “focused assessments” in which each county health department will be asked to choose a specific area of public health operations to help the state determine “where we spend our time and effort.”

For example, he said the March of Dimes has set a goal of reducing birth defects by 8 percent by 2014 and has asked the TDH to join them in meeting that goal. The governor, meanwhile, has established a new health and wellness initiative to battle obesity and set action priorities in areas including smoking, infant mortality, immunization, teen birth rates and prescription medicine abuse, which Behringer called “East Tennessee’s big problem.”

“If you look at the statistics, the (prescription drug abuse) problem is here. Infants are born addicted in a large percentage here,” he said.

“To improve the health of all people in Tennessee,” he said the state is asking all the county health departments to choose a focus area they feel is most important in their department.

As for funding, Behringer said, while Haslam has proposed more of it for the department of health in the new state budget, local governments are hurting for dollars and federal funding for health remains anyone’s guess.

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