Beltrami, Cass rank low in state's health
BEMIDJI - When the latest rankings for county health were released this week, it contained some sobering news for the north country.
Cass County ranked at the bottom of the list for Minnesota, and Beltrami County fared almost as poor.
The County Health Rankings, prepared by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, ranks the overall health of counties by measuring residents' health and how long they live.
In Minnesota, 84 of the 87 counties received a ranking this year, with three counties - Traverse, Kittson and Lake of the Woods - not included.
Of the 84 ranked counties, Cass came in last. Beltrami ranked 77th overall.
By contrast, the rankings for Hubbard and Clearwater counties are higher. Clearwater County ranked 15th in 2012, down from seventh the year before, while Hubbard slipped from 24th in 2011 to 41 last year.
"It always is a process to improve people's health," said Jamie Richter, director of Cass County Public Health. The county was ranked 81st in 2010 and 85th in 2011, according to the health report.
"Prevention is hard work," Richter said. "You focus on the things you can change."
Richter said public health officials are emphasizing partnerships to change people's behavior. She cited several preventative measures aimed at tackling community obesity, including restaurants offering healthier menu options, promoting farmers' markets and school districts implementing additional physical activities.
In Minnesota and nationally, the largest causes of chronic disease and premature death are obesity and tobacco use, according to the County Health Rankings report.
The report used two categories, health outcomes and health factors, to do the rankings.
Health outcomes include the rate of people dying before age 75, the percentage of people who report being in fair or poor health and the rate of low birth-weight infants.
Health factors include health behavior, clinical care, social and economic factors and physical environment.
The rankings, launched in 2010, are designed to compare the health of counties within each state; they do not compare counties in one state with counties in another state.
"By reporting on the overall health of people in each county, we can begin to understand how individual health is affected by where people live," Minnesota Commissioner of Health Ed Ehlinger said in a release.
The rankings serve as a reminder about the importance of prevention efforts, he said.
"We spend only a fraction of the amount on prevention that we spend on medical care in this country," Ehlinger said. "We need to do a better job of investing in disease prevention within communities if we really want to improve the health of Minnesotans and get a handle on rising health care costs."
Overall, the state ranks as one of the healthiest in the country, in part because local health officials continually monitor health in their communities and adjust strategies to improve it, he said.
Richter said Cass County relies on communities and nonprofits to help improve health among residents. "Partnerships are important," she said.
For Cass, health factors are the primary reason for the poor ranking, particularly social and economic factors like unemployment, children living in poverty and single-parent households.
Linda Yourczek, director for Beltrami County Public Health, couldn't be reached for comment.
Beltrami County was at or near the bottom within Minnesota for several health factors, including behaviors, clinical care and social and economic factors.
While Beltrami's unemployment isn't quite as high as neighboring Cass County, it has more children living in poverty (30 percent) and children living in single-parent households (38 percent).
However, the report shows Beltrami has made improvements. The county was ranked 84th out of 85 counties in 2010. It climbed to 82nd in 2011 before moving up five spots this year.