'Healthy' influx of dollars headed to northeast Connecticut

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Region - posted Mon., Oct. 3, 2011
Connecticut Dept. of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Jewell Mullen and NDDH Director Susan Starkey. Photos by D. Coffey.
Connecticut Dept. of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Jewell Mullen and NDDH Director Susan Starkey. Photos by D. Coffey.

The Northeast District Department of Health will be one of five Connecticut health districts sharing a community transformation grant worth $493,000.

Dr. Jewell Mullen, the state commissioner for the Department of Public Health, announced the news at a visit to the facility on Sept. 28. News of the award came after a competitive application process, Mullen said.

The five health districts were chosen based on a variety of factors related to health issues in the state. Of eight counties in Connecticut, Windham County is ranked last for health factors such as health behavior, clinical care, social and economic factors and physical environment. Windham County is primarily represented by the NDDH. It serves 12 towns including Brooklyn, Canterbury, Danielson, Eastford, Hampton, Killingly, Plainfield, Pomfret, Putnam, Sterling, Thompson, Union and Woodstock. The district covers 438 square miles and includes a population of approximately 86,000.

NDDH Director of Health Education and Communications Linda Colangelo said the sheer size and rural nature of the area presents challenges for promoting and protecting the health of its residents. “Windham County is dead last according to health indicators,” Colangelo said. “It's among the least food secure in the state. Many people don't know where their next meal is coming from. Fifty percent of students in the county are on free or reduced lunches.”

The gaps between the rich and poor in the county don't always show up in the data, said Mullen. “We worked hard to show that there are disparities in the state,” she said. The aggregate data doesn't show the poverty that exists in northeastern Connecticut, she said. “Poverty is not just in the larger urban areas.”

The NDDH has been working to address that gap with its HealthQuest partners. HealthQuest is a regional partnership with a variety of service providers that are working to improve the health of Windham County communities. Medical, professional and educational resources from across the county are specifically focused on reducing obesity-related chronic diseases by improving nutrition in homes and schools, and increasing physical activity.

“The members of HealthQuest represent a wide variety of people in northeastern Connecticut,” said member and state Sen. Don Williams Jr. (D-29th District). “We need to raise awareness through the schools and education that nutrition and exercise is the basis for establishing a healthy lifestyle into adulthood.”

Mullen praised the partnership for the work they were able to accomplish. “Public health happens at the community level,” Mullen said. “NDDH is a model of community collaboration.”

That community collaboration is one of the reasons that NDDH will receive a portion of the $493,000 grant. It has been recognized as an ACHIEVE community by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. ACHIEVE is the acronym for Action Communities for Health, Innovation and Environmental Change. All five districts receiving the federal grant monies are ACHIEVE communities. The ACHIEVE program encourages communities to make policy changes that promote health and wellness, as well as devising strategies to prevent chronic diseases.

Mullen visited the Plainfield Memorial School prior to her visit to NDDH. She took part in a 10-minute walk which is now part of the curriculum at the elementary school. The walk is one example of a policy change put in place to encourage healthy lifestyles and prevent chronic diseases. It is the sort of program that the NDDH hopes to focus on with the new federal monies.

The 2011 NDDH budget is $731,919, according to NDDH Director Sue Starkey. It represents $8.53 worth of services per person, the lowest per capita in the state. “We know how to turn one dollar into five,” Colangelo said.

The community transformation grant money will be used to plan strategies to increase the health and well-being of residents in the northeast district. Starkey expects the state commissioner to announce the specific dollar amounts to be distributed in the coming days.

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