Poll shows where we live impacts health

Federal health insurance faces an uncertain future, in Congress grappling with the Obamacare repeal or repair and in the state where access to healthy food and clean air can also affect the health of entire communities. The Rutgers Center for State Health Policy conducted a poll to gauge our health and well-being. Earlier this week Rhonda Schaffler sat down with its Director Joel Cantor.

Schaffler: Joel, welcome, great to have you here.

Cantor: Thanks.

Schaffler: We are in the midst of a huge debate on health care at the national level. You believe when it comes to health care though communities matter. Tell me a little bit about why you believe that.

Cantor: Sure, well of course what happens in Washington is going to be hugely consequential for our health, for our health care, how we pay for health care, for the state budget, etc. But our study really reflects something we’ve known for a long time that there are other things that are important to our health, not just coverage, but where we live really matters for health. So we asked a series of questions in the statewide poll about how people feel about their neighborhoods and the healthfulness of their neighborhoods.

Schaffler: This health and well-being poll that you took, what was in your view the number one finding, the big take-away?

Cantor: Well, we found across a variety of measures how people feel about their neighborhoods; that there are really major divides depending on our demographics. So while we find that New Jerseyans overall feel good about the places they live, about their access to healthy food, about their ability to walk and have recreation in their neighborhoods, certain sub populations are consistently across these measures showing much lower ratings. So for example, people of color, blacks and Hispanics, immigrants and people who have health problems, the uninsured tend to give lower ratings to their neighborhoods as a place to live overall, as a place to find healthy food, as a place to be able to walk and exercise and even their local public libraries as resources.

Schaffler: And this is a population, certainly those without insurance, that would need it the most.

Cantor: That’s right. We’re not saying in this study what caused what. But we know that the people who have the biggest health challenges feel that they live in places where it’s harder to become healthy. So it becomes almost a self-feeding cycle where if you’re low income your health is bad, and you’re living in a place where it’s really hard to get healthy.

Schaffler: Who’s responsible for improving health care in individual communities in New Jersey?

Cantor: Well of course the short answer is we all are. Government is, community organization are, health care delivery organizations are responsible, nonprofits have special obligations to improve health in their communities. There’s a group of private foundations that we consulted with in putting our questionnaires together and they all do work in the communities, of course foundations, grant makers can’t do this on their own. They can seed good project, but keeping them going is a real challenge.

Schaffler: What would be one thing that you think the next governor could do to improve access to health care and individual communities, for instance?

Cantor: There’s so much uncertainty right now with what’s going to happen with the health exchanges and the Medicaid program. And of course the state has limited resources to keep those things going if the federal government pulls back. But I think in the short run the next governor needs to promote enrollment in the programs we have and promote engagement in community health among our health care providers and our communities.

Schaffler: What is the most encouraging take-away? You’ve raised some problems, but should we be pleased about some of these findings?

Cantor: You have to take a step back and when you look at every sub group, the majority of people feel pretty good about where they live. Our findings overall show that people give pretty good ratings to their neighborhoods. Now is there room for improvement, especially for some groups, absolutely. But there’s good news in there as well.

Schaffler: And you’re going to have additional surveys looking at health care?

Cantor: That’s right. This is an annual survey, this was the first iteration of that. This fall we’re going to have another analysis out from the earlier survey focusing on more people and how they get stressed and what can be done about that. And then down the road we’ll be asking additional questions every year. This is likely to be a time of a lot of change in health and health care so I think it’s important to stay in touch with how the people really feel about what’s going on.

Schaffler: Absolutely. Joel, glad you came in to share some of these findings. Thank you.

Cantor: My pleasure, thank you.