A pitch for better health

Health commissioner says state focusing on closing gaps in health equality

Photo by Deb Gau Minnesota Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger spoke with members of the Southwest Health and Human Services Board on Wednesday morning.

MARSHALL — It was too rainy to pitch horseshoes, like he had planned. But it didn’t stop Dr. Ed Ehlinger from meeting with members of the public at Independence Park on Wednesday afternoon.

That was fitting, because Ehlinger, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health, was also looking for a different kind of “pitch” — ideas and suggestions on how to improve Minnesota’s health.

Better health was a bigger issue than just health care, or making good individual choices, Ehlinger said.

“Everything is about health,” he said. The economy, the environment, education and transportation can all have an impact on public health and vice versa. “You can’t be healthy by yourself.”

Ehlinger spoke with members of the Southwest Health and Human Services board on Wednesday morning, before meeting with a group of community members in the park.

Ehlinger said Minnesota is the fourth healthiest state in the nation, and it has had some positive traits — like a willingness to invest in the public good — that helped make it that way. However, Minnesota is facing challenges when it comes to making long-term investments for public health, he said.

Underinvestment in primary care “really impacts rural communities,” Ehlinger said. At the same time, he said, “Minnesota is an increasingly diverse state, and we have some disparities with that.”

Ehlinger said the Minnesota Department of Health is focusing on closing gaps in health equity in a few main ways. One way to improve health for all is to expand our understanding of what creates health. Another is to pursue policies in different areas outside of health care, that still support good health for people. Strengthening local communities’ ability to make healthy choices also supports health equity, he said.

Earlier that day, Ehlinger had a similar message for the SWHHS board, which included county commissioners from the southwest Minnesota region.

County and city governments are a crucial partner for public health because they make decisions that have a direct impact on people, he said.

“We really need strong local public health,” Ehlinger said. “We are in this together.”

Over the past few years, Ehlinger said, he has advocated for local public health grants and SHIP, the Statewide Health Improvement Partnership.

Board members had concerns about cuts in state funding for health-related services, and about the difficulties of recruiting physicians in rural areas.

“It is very bleak for us,” Pipestone County Commissioner Dan Wildermuth said of recruitment efforts there.

Ehlinger said the problem of recruitment was part of “system-wide” problems in health care. Minnesota hasn’t been very supportive of rural communities, he said.

After speaking with the group at the park, Ehlinger played a few rounds of beanbags with members of the public under the picnic shelter. It was, he said, a chance to “pitch” him ideas about how to improve health in Minnesota.

Area residents and health workers shared different ideas, on topics like patient-centered care, transportation, and more. Darlyce Rangaard, SNAP-Ed educator with the University of Minnesota Extension, talked about the need for referral systems to help connect people with programs like nutrition and diabetes education. She said transportation was also an important need in rural areas, where people may live far from a grocery store or sources of healthy food.

Some area residents at the event, like Don Ebbinga of the Lake Shetek area, spoke out in support of the game of horseshoes, too. Ebbinga said horseshoes can be played by people of different ages, and people with disabilities.

It was also a good way to socialize, he said.