VINELAND—How do you make the state’s unhealthiest counties healthier?

More than 70 people from state and local departments, agencies, organizations and coalitions gathered Wednesday for the Cumberland County Healthy Equity Forum to talk about how to improve access and eliminate disparities among residents, especially minorities.

The health forum was part of state events for National Minority Health Month and National Public Health Week.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s annual County Health Rankings reports show that Cumberland County and other South Jersey counties continue to rank last in health outcomes in the state. They have some of the highest infant mortality rates, diabetes prevalence and food insecurity rates in New Jersey.

“None of us were excited, when the health rankings came out, seeing South Jersey struggle with counties sitting at places they don’t want to be sitting at,” said Cathleen Bennett, commissioner at the state Department of Health.

Megan Sheppard, health officer at Cumberland County Health Department, said low health scores prompted South Jersey officials to form the Cumberland-Salem-Gloucester Health and Wellness Alliance to address health issues plaguing communities.

“Not one of us can do this by ourselves, especially with limited resources and funding,” she said.

More than 30 percent of the state's population in 2015 comprised of people who are African American or Hispanic, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's County Health Rankings. In Cumberland, it was nearly 50 percent.

Sheppard said a multi-county needs assessment survey showed that obesity, substance and alcohol abuse, mental health and suicide and diabetes were the overall health issues that experts needed to help residents with.

“We’re seeing some improvement here, but other counties are improving, too,” she said. “We have to look to see what we can do to continue reaching our goals.”

Forum experts said that for counties with large minority populations and rural areas, lack of transportation, communication and insurance coverage are likely to pose as barriers to health care.

Carolyn Heckman, vice president of community relations at Inspira Health Network, said it was the responsibility of the hospitals to engage with communities to figure out the needs of their patients, including things outside of health care like homelessness.

“We have people who are undocumented, and with the changes in immigration, people now are sometimes too afraid to get care so that when they finally do get it, they are really sick,” Heckman said.

Initiatives like Live Health Vineland, Live Healthy Cumberland County, Knock Out Opioid Abuse campaign, farmers markets, school gardens, Healthy Corner Stores, walking paths and other projects have improved conditions, but officials say there needs to be more.

“Health isn’t just what happens in the clinician’s office,” Bennett said. “We all look at, what are those barriers and how can we move through them?”

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Previously interned and reported for, The Asbury Park Press, The Boston Globe

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