How can Atlantic City keep people from falling through health care cracks?

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AtlantiCare Emergency

‘What is happening here and nationally is that larger health systems recognize that we need to look at things differently,’ said Lori Herndon, AtlantiCare president and CEO. ‘Having an acute care hospital is great, so if you have an accident or a stroke, we’re there for you, but there’s so much we can do in partnerships for the community on what to spend more time, energy and money on.’

ATLANTIC CITY — Within these 48 city blocks, men, women and children are falling through the cracks of health care.

People are dying from overdoses at alarming rates. Mothers and their unborn babies, especially in families of color, risk delivery complications and possibly death. And poor lifestyle, exercise and nutrition habits have led to higher than average obesity rates, which creates additional health risks.

Under a state takeover since November 2016, the city is facing a mountain of issues, from blight to unemployment to poverty, but no less important has been the struggle to improve the health of its residents. Identified as a priority, state, county and city officials, along with medical partners, are addressing the city’s health issues.

In February, The Press of Atlantic City began reporting on those critical issues, focusing on blight. March’s spotlight focuses on the health of the city’s residents.

Like many stubborn social issues, the problems are often intertwined.

A July report by Leslie Kantor and other researchers at Rutgers School of Public Health found deaths related to chronic illness and gun violence in Atlantic City exceed state averages and rates in other major New Jersey cities. The city’s rate of infant mortality — about 10 deaths per every 1,000 births — is one of the highest in the state, according to the Department of Health.

Black infants are even more at risk. Babies born to mothers from the city are dying at a rate five times higher than the state average.

Addiction, along with mental illness, poverty, trauma and stress, are linked to the city’s significant homeless population, said Laura Rogers, chief program officer of Jewish Family Service of Atlantic & Cape May Counties.

The data and research have been used by state and local leaders who say it’s critical to work together to find ways to reduce poor health outcomes and improve quality of life for residents.

These problems are all taking place in a city where most residents live no more than two miles from a level II trauma center and hospital.

Primary care offices, specialty care providers, wellness center and social services agencies are also close by.

But those facilities may not be solutions to the most pressing issues.

“What is happening here and nationally is that larger health systems recognize that we need to look at things differently,” said Lori Herndon, AtlantiCare president and CEO. “Having an acute care hospital is great, so if you have an accident or a stroke, we’re there for you, but there’s so much we can do in partnerships for the community on what to spend more time, energy and money on.”

Rogers said customized care plans, direct outreach and wraparound services for things like housing, transportation and nutrition are the answer, not traditional approaches.

“If you don’t have a healthy home situation, how can you have good health?” she said. “The hallmark of our work has been meeting people where they’re at.”

In the end, improving the health of the city and its residents will be a collective effort.

“We’re all in it for the same reason, which is to improve the health status of the community,” Herndon said. “We collaborate, and there’s always more to do. It’s been relevant to align everyone, more so in this last year and few months, so we can get more done if we work closer together.”

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