Members of a new state panel on public health have about a year to come up with solutions to problems that have been plaguing Indiana for decades.
The state regularly lags behind its peers in several important measures of residents’ health, and legislative leaders have done comparatively little to help.
Lawmakers have consistently balked at hiking taxes on tobacco or increasing funding for local health departments – measures that would combat challenges experts say have blunted economic development efforts and led to higher insurance rates for Hoosiers.
“Unfortunately, rather than valuing prevention, our system has been increasingly focused on providing reimbursement to treat chronic disease and illness rather than preventing disease and preserving health,” Indiana Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box said last week during the first meeting of the Governor’s Public Health Commission.
To turn things around, the 16-member commission will consider ways to increase access to programs and services from health departments and ways to increase how much funding those agencies receive from state coffers.
They’ll also – sometime in 2022 – pitch possible changes to state law to ensure more uniformity in how county health agencies operate and deliver services to residents.
It’s a tall order that requires input from doctors and public health professionals across Indiana.
Allen County Department of Health Administrator Mindy Waldron is northeast Indiana’s lone voice on the committee and one of few from the northern half of the state.
Many members are from central or southern Indiana, areas commonly represented on boards to which Gov. Eric Holcomb makes appointments.
A list released last week of more than 40 people appointed to 11 state panels on topics ranging from electric cars to fire prevention and the state fair features just three northeast Indiana residents. Two live in Fort Wayne.
“Having someone from the northern half of the state is a bonus,” Waldron said this week when asked about the importance of local representation on the public health commission.
More beneficial is the breadth of her experience.
She’s been with the Allen County health department for more than 20 years, and Waldron chairs the Local Health Department Managers Association – a statewide group of Indiana health department administrators she joined 25 years ago and has led for 16.
Each allows her a unique perspective on ways to improve the state’s poor standing on public health.
What needs to change? A lot, including better-funded health departments.
Indiana ranks 48th among states for per-person public health spending, according to America’s Health Rankings.
But Waldron said there are other, less obvious problems such as differing opinions among health department leaders on state public health guidelines.
“You can sometimes have 94 different interpretations of state rules,” she said.
Indiana’s continued low health rankings prove changes should be made.
“Every system is perfectly designed to get the outcome that it achieves,” said Dr. Judy Monroe, a former state health commissioner who co-chairs the commission with former State Sen. Luke Kenley. “I would charge us to think about what outcomes we aspire to have.”
It’s good advice, and it will be enlightening to hear what public health commission members say in the coming months. It ultimately will be up to lawmakers to act on recommendations, and we expect them to listen with the goal of actually making a difference this time.
Indiana ranks low for many health measures, according to America’s Health Rankings
• More than 12% of adults are diabetic (41st worst)
• More than 19% of adults smoke (40th worst)
• More than 13% of households are food insecure (38th worst)
• More than 35% of adults are obese (40th worst)