Numbers tell the story of Manatee County's health care picture

skennedy@bradenton.comMarch 17, 2013 

MANATEE -- Manatee County ranks 20th of 67 Florida counties for health outcomes, representing how healthy a county's population is based on mortality and morbidity, according to a study.

The county ranked 23rd among 67 for health factors, those items that influence one's health, such as behavioral, economic and environmental factors, according to the study compiled by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Local health care expert Jennifer Bencie, M.D., cites the rankings when discussing whether voters should increase the county sales tax by a half-cent to finance indigent health care.

"I believe we all want to aim higher in regard to our county's health," said Bencie, administrator of the Manatee County Health Department. She urged the commission last week to put the question before voters in a referendum.

Part of what makes a healthy local population is access to quality medical care, she noted, adding, "There is a large population in Manatee County that cannot afford such luxuries."

The Manatee County Commission did vote 4-3 to put the question on the ballot during a special election June 18.

The discussion Tuesday also highlighted a central question of the debate: How do Manatee County citizens rate in access and quality of health care when compared with other areas?

Two nearby counties, Sarasota and Hillsborough, have already instituted special health-care funding mechanisms.

Compared to Manatee's 20th ranking statewide for

health outcomes, such as premature death, Hillsborough ranked 32nd, and Sarasota ranked third, according to Christine Clayton, communications associate for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

In measurements of health factors, such as access to care or alcohol or tobacco use, Manatee ranked 23rd, while Hillsborough County ranked 25th and Sarasota ranked fourth, she said.

Manatee County has a significant uninsured and underinsured population according to U.S. Census data included in a study done by University of South Florida researchers, "The State of Health Care System in Manatee County."

Manatee's proportion of uninsured residents, at 26 percent, is higher than the average among other Florida counties, at 23.5 percent; and is considerably higher than the national average of 18 percent, said the 2008 study commissioned by The Manatee Chamber Foundation.

"Manatee ranks 47th out of the 67 counties in Florida on this measure," it said.

Compared to other Florida counties, Manatee is even closer to the bottom when it comes to funding for public health: At $30.59 per capita, it ranked 59th of 67 counties, the USF study said.

Locally, the average cost of health care per person is well more than $3,000 per year, with 70 percent of medical conditions resulting from preventable causes, Bencie noted.

The county's two top major causes of death -- heart disease and cancer -- are largely preventable, she said.

"Tobacco avoidance, proper nutrition and physical activity, access to primary care physicians and mental health specialists can greatly improve an individual's health and reduce risks of obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stress and other contributing factors of heart disease and cancer," Bencie told a standing-room-only crowd at County Administrative Center.

Basic determinants of health include socio-economic status, environment, genetics and behavior, with behavior constituting 50 percent of the health status linked to outcomes, Bencie said.

She added that with the proper education and access to healthy choices, "We can improve our individual and collective physical, mental and financial health."

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter

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