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Minnesota health commissioner presents plan for state’s improvement

Dr. Ed Ehlinger, the commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Health, discusses ways to improve Minnesota’s state of health. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI – Thirty-nine years ago, Minnesota Gov. Wendell Anderson graced the cover of Time with the headline “The Good Life in Minnesota.”

Dr. Ed Ehlinger, commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Health, referenced that magazine article while in Bemidji Monday afternoon, asking whether Minnesotans still have the good life.

“I think we really do,” said Ehlinger, speaking at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center.

But, he continued, there is plenty of room for improvement. He questioned whether Minnesota is well-positioned in health and if the state is moving in the right direction.

Minnesota for years was ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in national health rankings, but last year, the state was ranked No. 6, Ehlinger reported.

He predicted that the state again will drop when the newest rankings are released next year.

“That’s a sign we’re not going in the right direction,” Ehlinger said.

Minnesota also has dropped in rankings released through Kids Count, which measures child well-being. The latest rankings show Minnesota slipping from No. 2 to No. 5.

He also finds it “disturbing” that the rate of infant mortality is actually rising in Minnesota.

“This is one where I think we really should be ashamed of ourselves,” said Ehlinger, a pediatrician.

Minnesota is ranked 46th in state public health expenditures, he reported. In 2006 the state invested $249 per person in public health; in 2011, that figure dropped to $49 a person.

The Statewide Health Improvement Plan was funded for $47 million in 2010-11 and just $15 million in 2012-2013, he noted.

“SHIP has been a huge benefit in our state and yet we’ve cut it 70 percent when we had the state shutdown,” Ehlinger said. “We need to make that investment again.”

Long-term budget planning is needed to improve the state of Minnesota’s health, Ehlinger said.

Rather than addressing a budget every biennium, the state should look at its goals for the future and plan accordingly, he said.

“The health Minnesota has right now … is not because of stuff we’re doing right now – it’s because of the investments that were made in the state 20, 30 years ago that we’re benefitting from now,” he said. “We have to do the same things for our kids, our grandkids, our great grandkids.”

Minnesota also is ranked 44th in binge drinking and 24th in geographic disparities. Ethnic disparities exist but vary based on the specific health-care issue.

“If we’re going to be a healthy state, we’re going to have to deal with disparities,” Ehlinger said. “We’re going to have to deal with geographic disparities; we’re going to have to deal with ethnic disparities.”

What should we do?

Ehlinger presented a plan through which he believes Minnesota’s state of health can rebound.

The state needs to foster an environment cultivating healthy individuals, healthy communities, and health care that balances preventive care and treatment, he said.

The health of Minnesotans needs to be taken into account when consider all potential policies, he stressed.

“It’s all really about a community,” he said. “We know that the physical environment impacts health, social environments impact health, access to care impacts to health.”

The Healthy Minnesota Partnership in July approved a framework presents three themes for improving Minnesota’s health: capitalize on the opportunity to influence health in early childhood, assure that the opportunity for health is available everywhere and for everyone, and strengthen communities to create their own healthy futures.

“I’m seeing community engagement as a major public health tool,” Ehlinger said. “We need to listen to communities.”

Bike ride, curling today

The following events planned for today are open to the public:

-- 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., group bike ride. The 30-minute ride will loop around from the Minnesota Department of Health District office and back. The route will feature the new Paul Bunyan Trail bridge.

--1:30-2:30 p.m., curling. Ehlinger will try curling for the first time as he visits the Bemidji Curling Club. Community members will have the chance to throw a rock if they have never done so.