By, J.T. Lane, Assistant Secretary for Public Health, State of Louisiana and Gerrelda Davis, Director of Primary Care and Rural Health, State of Louisiana
In late 2011, the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation (BCBSLF) issued their “Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana,” which would ultimately award between $250,000 and $1,000,000 to communities that match the grants and focus on increasing healthy eating and active living.
At about the same time, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH) Office of Public Health was applying for a Community Transformation Grant (CTG), which is targeted at addressing the leading causes of chronic diseases to improve the health of Americans and reduce health care costs through policy, environmental and infrastructure changes.
Clearly there were synergies between our proposed work and that of BCBSLF–the CTG and Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana created the perfect opportunity to truly leverage resources and bring to bear enough funding and expertise to address the chronic conditions that are hurting our state.
When we applied for the CTG, we asked for a representative from Blue Cross and Blue Shield to be part of our leadership team. To bring about community change, we knew we had to have all aspects of the community (from primary care to education to transportation) invested. With thought leaders from all that impacts health, we would have the best opportunity to reach more people where they live, learn, work and play.
BCBSLF then invited experts from the DHH Office of Public Health to participate in their grant process, asking Public Health to review applications. With these informal, but necessary, partnerships in place, in early 2012, DHH met with the foundation to discuss a formal partnership. Our two organizations eventually signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) and our work began. One significant portion of the MOU is a data-sharing component to align all different health data streams to be used to inform decision-making so we make targeted investments in prevention initiatives for the most serious conditions facing communities.
It was a challenge for DHH to reach the entire state with the CTG, but with BCBSLF we can reach more Louisianans and better leverage resources. In addition, DHH has unique expertise, given our knowledge and work with communities/parishes, that provides a tremendous value to the Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana. Together, we are fighting chronic conditions with place-based strategies—i.e., where people live, learn, work and play—to make the healthy choice the easy choice throughout communities.
Through the new grants, we provide communities with the skills, tools and resources to improve the health of their residents. We are empowering communities to make the decisions they know will benefit their neighborhoods—after all, every person and thus every community is different, making community organizations the best positioned to know what will work for their members.
Together, we are focusing on healthy lifestyles, physical activity, health education, access to safe places to play and exercise, and healthy nutrition. For example, the West End Health and Wellness Project in New Iberia is opening a fresh seafood and farmer’s market in the city’s West End.
Because of the reach of DHH and BCBSLF, this partnership is the blueprint for the future of public health in Louisiana. While DHH has had similar relationships in the past, this is the first time we’ve been able to leverage so much funding and grant dollars, which makes it an incredibly exciting partnership. This approach is in tune with what the future of public health should look like—maximizing public and private sector investments and empowering communities to take charge of their health.
In Public Health in Louisiana, we are also looking to strengthen partnerships with our local parishes. We see our long-term role focused on serving as chief health strategist for the state, meaning we’ll provide the expertise and resources for our parishes, communities and neighborhoods, but let them lead the development of local solutions to their major health problems.
For instance, recently Calcasieu Parish hired a health coordinator to bring together community groups, including faith-based organizations, and marshal resources to provide opportunities for healthy living. When speaking with another parish, we shared this idea and they immediately got excited and began looking for funding opportunities to make this happen. We want to replicate this excitement and approach in all 64 parishes.
Quite simply, Public Health can identify the best strategic investments and be the technical advisor to drive innovation locally and health improvement across the state. To get the most out of every dollar we invest, we need less episodic and siloed investments. For instance, our great capital city, Baton Rouge, has more than 100 different programs (all funded differently) that address obesity. These need to be harmonized to work together. When that happens, return on investment will be greater and we’ll have no duplication of efforts.
The future of our agency is that of chief health strategist for our state – we will work side-by-side with local communities and our parishes to build expertise and capacity and leverage all dollars available, creating a far more comprehensive approach. In five years, ten years and twenty years, our state and our people’s health will be the better for it.