Union County is working to improve its health ranking among Florida counties after placing last every year since a county health rankings report was first released in 2010.
The report, released last week by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin, measures health outcomes, based on length and quality of life.
Also included are health factors such as high school graduation rates and adult obesity, which are compared against statewide percentages.
The low rankings may be due to a lack of funding and minimal citizen participation in the already existing health care services, said Joe Pietrangelo, administrator of the Florida Department of Health at Union County.
“Unfortunately, an awful lot of what we do is based on how we’re funded,” he said.
The rest of North Central Florida skewed to the bottom half of the list, with Clay County placing in the top 10 and Alachua County in the top 20.
In October 2012, the health department opened up the New River Community Health Center in the same building as the health department via a Health Resources and Services Administration grant, Pietrangelo said.
The center expands on the primary care offered from the health department since the department opened in the 1990s. It’s now open five days a week and includes gynecological, behavioral health, diagnostic, tobacco prevention and case management services.
Since then, department officials have had trouble obtaining funds to move forward.
The county has tried unsuccessfully to get money for a community intervention program, which Pietrangelo believes is the next step for them. He wants to put together a team of specialists to address “boots-on-the-ground needs,” he said.
“If we’re going to seriously address the numbers in Union County, we’d need to do so in the community,” he said.
They are waiting to see what happens in this year’s legislative session, he said.
State lawmakers could decide to allocate federal money to state health departments, Pietrangelo said, which they would use for the intervention program.
Until then, county officials are working with the resources they have.
According to the rankings report, Union County ranks 55th statewide in number of teen pregnancies.
Kyle Roberts, the health department business manager and health center’s chief financial officer said the Teen Outreach Program will be available in Union County schools beginning in the 2014-2015 term to educate students on how to prevent pregnancy.
In Union County, 27 percent of adults report smoking greater than or equal to 100 cigarettes and who currently smoke, compared to a state average of 18 percent.
About 200 middle and high school students participate in the Students Working Against Tobacco organization, which has driven down youth smoking rates in the county, Roberts said.
In 2010, the county commission passed a non-binding resolution encouraging tobacco retailers to stop the sale of flavored tobacco products, brought before commissioners by the organization.
Roberts said he hopes that by teaching positive habits for Union County’s younger residents, the changes will be reflected in the ranking.
“When those kids become adults, you’ll start seeing a little bit of a decrease,” he said.
Still, the county faces other issues with its older population. The health center hasn’t seen as many patients as expected because it’s attached to the health department, which has the reputation of only being used by low-income people.
County Commissioner Karen Cossey, chairman for the health center’s board of directors, said it has decided the center may need a location change to combat the reputation.
“That’s not the perception we want to give off, but it’s going to make it tougher for us to be stretched thinner,” she said.
Another widespread issue in the community is poverty. The county, with a rate of unemployment of 7.3 percent, beats the state average of 8.6 percent. But Pietrangelo said many in the county have stopped looking for jobs and are therefore not included in the unemployment rate.
The three main employers in the county are the school system, the correctional facilities and the Gilman Building Co. saw mill heading into Lake Butler, the county’s main city.
There used to be a clothing manufacturing company, but it closed about 20 years ago, Cossey said. Another popular industry was tobacco farming and processing, which has also slowed in recent years.
In Lake Butler, the main street is lined with convenience stores, churches and local businesses residing in rundown buildings. A 25-bed hospital stands to address critical care issues. The locally owned Spires IGA supermarket, the largest grocery store in the county, sits just off the main drag.
Cossey said the Commission would welcome any industry interested in bringing business to the area.
Pietrangelo said he’s hoping funding for the community intervention team and other programs will eventually come through so the county can move toward a higher health rank.
“I think Union County deserves a shot,” he said.