Agency embarks to make state healthier by 2020

Hartford - Public health officials have embarked on a wide-ranging effort to take the pulse of the state's well-being and come up with a roadmap to make Connecticut healthier by 2020.

Starting next week, the Department of Public Health will hold forums in all eight counties to hear about issues and problems facing the communities' health, as well as ideas for making the communities healthier places to live. The first forum will be held Sept. 10 at Rockville High School in Vernon.

The forums are part of the State Health Assessment that's underway, tracking information that will ultimately be used to identify various health issues facing residents and mobilize resources.

"We want people to tell us what we missed and what else we should be thinking about," said Dr. Jewel Mullen, the Department of Public Health commissioner, in an interview with The Associated Press.

At those meetings, officials also plan to share some of the information they've already collected - with the help of numerous public, private and community partners from different disciplines - about the population's health. Even though Connecticut usually ranks among the top 10 healthiest states, Mullen said problems have already been identified. For example, the state still has high obesity rates. Unlike some other states, childhood obesity rates are not declining, especially in low-income areas, she said.

State statistics show 8.2 percent of female students in grades 9-12 were obese in 2005. That number climbed slightly to 8.4 percent in 2011. For boys in grades 9-12, the obesity rate was 13.8 percent in 2005 and 16.5 percent in 2011.

Mullen said there are also pockets of high rates of HIV, asthma, high infant mortality and low birth weights. And while many of the issues are found in Connecticut's urban centers, Mullen said some are found in rural and suburban communities as well. For example, she said the agency has discovered a correlation between low birth weights and women who became pregnant using assisted reproductive technology. She said more of those kinds of procedures are performed in Connecticut compared to other states.

Additionally, she said residents living in urban and rural parts of Connecticut are experiencing trouble accessing healthy foods because they live in so-called food deserts, where there isn't ready access to supermarkets and other stores selling healthy food.

Public health officials are also looking at the preponderance of chronic disease in Connecticut, such as heart disease and diabetes. State statistics show that heart disease was the leading cause of death for women in 2009, followed by cancer. Meanwhile, slightly more men died from cancer than heart disease that year.

The department's wide-ranging study - a first for the agency - comes as the federal Affordable Care Act rolls out in Connecticut, changing how health care is delivered in the state, including the new Access Health CT insurance marketplace that will begin open enrollment Oct. 1. But Mullen said the health care reform law is not just about expanding access to health insurance and treatment but also about focusing on preventive measures - something the department can help address.

"Most prevention isn't happening in the doctor's office, and a lot of prevention isn't about medical care at all," she said. "It's about the conditions that people live in. It's about their access to healthy foods. It's about clean water. It's about they're making the right choices for their own health. It's about decreasing smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke."

The final report, Healthy Connecticut 2020, is expected to be ready by late 2013. Similar to the federal initiative known as Healthy People, the roadmap will include measurable benchmarks to determine whether the state is actually healthier by 2020.

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