Recession Compounds County Health Problems

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The recession has compounded Gila County’s already serious health problems, says a recent report presented to health care leaders in Payson last week.

As one sign of the deterioration of an already serious problem, at least one low-cost health clinic operating in Payson this year faced a near doubling of demand.

Health care leaders met in Payson recently to take stock of the grim situation and grapple for workable solutions to the lack of doctors and dismal statistics when it comes to death

rates, access to care, obesity, smoking and other health indicators.

Fortunately for Rim Country, the Payson area remains in much better shape when it comes to access to care than the rest of the mostly rural county.

Payson actually ranks above average for the state when it comes to the number of primary care providers per resident. However, those in outlying areas like Hayden and Tonto Basin do not have any providers and must drive long distances for medical care, according to a May 2010 report from the Arizona Association of Community Health Centers (AACHC).

Unfortunately, chronic health problems afflicting Gila County residents make health care even more important than in other areas of the state. When it comes to morbidity, mortality, obesity and use of cigarettes, Gila County ranks the least healthy of all 15 counties in Arizona, according to county health rankings released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

Doug Hirano, author of a health planning report for Gila County, said the region faces a deadly combination of low incomes, many older residents with chronic health problems, poor health habits generally, high rates of diabetes and an alarmingly high number of motor vehicle deaths.

However, the health of residents varies across the county as demographics shift.

Overall, “Gila County residents die prematurely far in excess of other Arizonans,” Hirano wrote. “On the positive side, Gila County residents fare well related to low rates of infant mortality, while rates of death due to cardiovascular disease and cancer are similar to statewide rates.”

The use of tobacco by teens poses an especially tough challenge. Almost half of all county teenagers have tried cigarettes, compared to only one-third statewide.

“Without intervention, this adolescent behavior can lead to long-term smoking rates among adults,” Hirano wrote.

The AACHC commissioned the study to understand Gila County’s current health status and its future needs and to spotlight deficiencies in the county’s healthcare system.

Several doctors attending a forum on the report last week said far too many residents simply can’t afford medical care.

“There is significant anecdotal evidence that low-income individuals and families without health insurance are struggling to access affordable care,” Hirano wrote.

Dr. Alan Michaels of Payson Christian Clinic, which offers low-cost medical care to low-income and uninsured residents, said the number of people without medical insurance needing help has exploded.

Since the Christian clinic opened, every year the number of patients has increased significantly. Last year, 14 volunteer doctors saw 2,200 patients. So far this year, they have seen 3,600.

With such a high demand for discounted services, Michaels said it takes three months for patients to get their first appointment.

“There is no lack of people that need care,” he said.

Michaels said the county must do a better job of offering affordable care, but it will take a synergistic effort to make a change.

“All of us working together, we can do a better job.”

For starters, the experts concluded, they must do a better job about letting people know what services they can get now.

Many health care providers Hirano spoke to for the study said far too many people don’t realize that their lifestyle choices can kill them.

Moreover, residents often don’t know about human, social and health services already available and the options to pay for these services.

Hirano suggested a clearinghouse of information on services would greatly benefit residents.

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