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Manatee County aiming higher on health care

BRADENTON -- Cancer. Heart disease. Obesity.

They are but a few of the myriad health issues facing the United States.

“We are not a healthy country,” Dr. Jennifer Bencie, administrator for the Manatee County Health Department, told the Tiger Bay Club on Thursday.

Those concerns are no different here, even though Manatee County is 21st out of Florida’s 67 counties in terms of community health, according to a study cited by Bencie from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

“We want to set our sights higher than that,” said Judith Sedgeman, Tiger Bay Club president. “We should be doing a lot better and we have the leadership to get it done.”

That was the message heard by a capacity crowd in Pier 22’s second-floor ballroom, and it was echoed by Bradenton health care attorney and author Jonathan Fleece.

“We have no better leadership in America than we do in Manatee County,” he said. “We have that talent here.”

Fleece joined Bencie and panelist Mary Ruiz, president and chief executive officer of Manatee Glens, for the discussion.

It took him two years to co-author “The New Health Age,” and among the startling statistics he talked about Thursday were:

n 50 million Americans have no access to health care.

n In 2011, U.S. businesses spent an average of $12,000 per employee for health care coverage.

n By 2020, 20 percent of the federal budget will be taken up by Medicare.

“We are losing our competitive edge, not just because of our state of health and state of our work force, but because of the cost of providing health care,” Fleece said. “All those trickle down to Manatee County, but we know what we can do with community involvement. We care about what we do.”

The vehicle for that endeavor, Fleece said, is the Manatee County Healthcare Alliance, started in 2010 after a collaborative study by the Manatee Chamber of Commerce and the University of South Florida.

It is a nonprofit launched by the chamber that is gathering community leaders to engage people at the grassroots level to develop action plans focusing on:

n Legislation and health care reform.

n Education, wellness and prevention.

n Funding.

n Health care coordination and integration.

n Work force development.

The objective, Ruiz said, is “to envision how we can raise the quality of health care in this community and lower the cost for everybody.”

“We have a shortage of physicians compared to other communities,” she said. “We need to integrate health care, need to work on prevention and wellness, need to change legislation to be supporting and work on affirmative funding strategy.

“It’s a very broad agenda about making health care better.”

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055.