State officials unveil Health Improvement Plan

AP News
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Posted: Dec 11, 2009 7:49 AM

Improving children's health and reducing obesity and tobacco use are the focus of a plan released Thursday for improving the health outcomes of Oklahoma residents, who officials said have higher rates of disease and mortality than almost every other state.

Oklahoma ranks 49th in the nation in the health outcomes of its citizens _ ahead of only Mississippi _ and 5,320 lives are lost each year because the state does not meet the national average in health outcomes, officials said as they unveiled the Oklahoma Health Improvement Plan.

"We find that unacceptable," said Barry L. Smith, president of the Oklahoma State Board of Health.

"Those health outcomes are costing our state lives every single day," said Dr. Terry Cline, Oklahoma's health commissioner.

The plan, requested by the Legislature, is the result of a yearlong study into why Oklahoma ranks near the bottom of all states in important health status indicators.

Sen. Brian Crain, R-Tulsa, said infant mortality, stroke and cardiovascular disease are major problems.

Nationally, 6.6 out of every 1,000 newborns die before they reach their first birthday, but in Oklahoma the ratio is 8.8 per 1,000 newborns, Crain said.

"This will not sit on a shelf," Crain said of the health plan, which he described as a blueprint for improving Oklahomans' physical, social and mental well-being. The plan recommends passage of legislation dealing with tobacco-use prevention, obesity reduction and children's health through 2015.

Dr. Jenny Alexopulos, vice president of the health board, said the plan identifies four infrastructure areas in the state's health system that need to be improved; financing of public health programs, the effectiveness of the health care system, work force development and access to public health services.

"Oklahoma has health work force shortages and gaps," Alexopulos said. The state also needs more health care professionals in rural areas, she said.

Cline, a psychologist, said Oklahoma ranks 50th in the nation in the number of in-state primary care physicians.

Cline said many of the plan's policy recommendations will cost nothing to implement but others will need additional resources, a factor that may slow implementation as lawmakers trim state agency budgets to deal with a growing revenue shortfall caused by the economic downturn and low energy prices.

Cline said the Oklahoma Department of Health that he heads has a 20 percent vacancy rate in nurses due to budget cuts and salaries that do not match those in the private sector.

Among the plan's many recommendations is the creation of a comprehensive school health initiative for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade involving health curriculum, school nurses, physical education and nutrition.

The study found 687,625 Oklahomans under age 65 had no health insurance in 2008, representing 22.3 percent of the state's population. In 2007, about 474,000 Oklahomans could not see a doctor because of cost, ranking the state 47th in the nation.

Alexopulos said Medicaid, which uses federal and state dollars to provide health care to the elderly, disabled and children of low-income families, and the tax-supported Insure Oklahoma premium assistance program for low- and medium-income workers could be expanded to cover more people.