Federal dollars help target disease prevention in Oklahoma County, one ZIP code at a time

The Oklahoma City-County Department of Health is using $3.5 million in federal health care grants to supplement ongoing effort to keep residents out of emergency rooms.
BY ZEKE CAMPFIELD zcampfield@opubco.com Modified: October 13, 2012 at 12:51 am •  Published: October 15, 2012
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Next door, barbershop manager David Antwine told Bailey many of his customers complain of heart disease and diabetes.

“It's lack of information and lack of insurance,” Antwine explained.

Overcoming obstacles

Awareness and access are two of the greatest obstacles to a healthy community, said Gary Cox, director of the city-county department.

As many as 70 percent of the county's premature deaths are because of an unhealthy lifestyle, poor diet or the use of tobacco, alcohol or other substances, he said. There's a human cost, but also an economic one: Oklahoma County spends as much as $920 million annually treating its residents for chronic disease.

“If you can keep them well then you can keep them out of the emergency rooms and doctors' offices and specialists' offices,” Cox said. “It's not only to save the person from disease, illness and death, but it also has a very firm underpinning in economics.”

Lack of access is compounded by difficulty in persuading elected officials to pass more stringent health policies, he said. Though he doesn't see political support in Oklahoma for limiting soda sizes, as was recently adopted in New York City, he said he would like to see the Legislature adopt rule changes that would allow cities and towns to enact more stringent nonsmoking policies.

Health initiatives

His was one of 61 health departments nationwide to receive the federal funding, which in addition to the cardiovascular program will also support nearly a dozen or so obesity-specific health initiatives adopted by the joint city-county Wellness Now Coalition.

Among others: A campaign to reduce consumption of sugary beverages, expanded walking and biking trails, wellness classes and a push to refocus public school cafeterias on healthy menu options.

In the 73111 ZIP code, construction is progressing on a $17 million wellness center that will house neighborhood health care and awareness programs in two buildings, with outdoor fitness amenities on the 54-acre campus to include walking trails and recreation fields.

“It's a comprehensive effort, really, to improve health using all the funding sources we can get our hands on,” Cox said.

The state's Republican leadership has turned away federal health care money in the past, but Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, a Republican, said this campaign is worth supporting.

Cornett said Oklahoma City will supplement the federal health care funds with revenue from city and school bond issues, sales tax proceeds and private sector investment to finance hundreds of new miles of sidewalks and develop new gyms at inner-city schools.

Next, the city will bring in a national polling agency to see how the programming and direction can better be tailored to the region's specific needs, he said.

It's not about forcing people to be healthy, he said, but giving them the tools they need to make that decision for themselves.

“By creating a city that has catered itself to the automobile like we have done is irrational,” he said. “We're redesigning this city to be built for people. Five years ago we were on the list of fattest cities in America, so there's anecdotal information out there that we're doing good but we've still got to do better.”

Bailey, glad to be distributing good news to his community now instead of filing health violations, said he's excited to see the initiative spread. Already 15 pounds lighter himself, he said just talking about ways to be healthy can be contagious.

“People are losing weight, they are being diagnosed, and many of them have no idea that they're prediabetic or diabetic or have high blood pressure — they're finding this out for the first time now,” he said. “If you're trying to improve the health of the whole county it just makes sense that you start at the worst and move out from there.”



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