Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Travels of a Health Commissioner

[Written on Friday Aug. 2, 2013]


Part of my job as Health Commissioner is to use the Bully Pulpit afforded me to educate people in Minnesota about the heath issues facing them and to advocate for programs and policies that could effectively address those issues. But another part of my job (and probably the most important part) is to listen to the stories of people in the state about what they think is important in creating health for themselves and their communities, what's getting in the way of creating that  health, and what ideas do they have to eliminate those barriers.

This was a week filled with listening and a great deal of learning.

On Tuesday I held a Pitch the Commissioner event in Duluth and heard lots of "pitches" about the struggles of how to create a way to get kids to bike or walk back and forth to school in a safe manner, the mental health issues in their community, the substance abuse issues, the needs of the elderly, and many other problems. Overwhelming those problems were the positive stories I heard about the power of the Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP) to mobilize a community to create health-enhancing policies  like "complete streets" and "safe routes to school", to link and leverage resources to create effective programs, and to bring real hope to a community. 

I ended the day  with a stop in Grand Marais where I met with community leaders in their community garden that has helped transform that community. Around the squash, beans, and broccoli I heard from 3 county commissioners about how they see SHIP as not only  a  health program but a community development program. I heard a businessman state that without SHIP, his business would not have succeeded (he sells and repairs bikes). I heard a community elder state that SHIP was crucial to keeping her healthy, in her home, and a contributing member of her community.

These stories - with facts to back them up - convinced me (again) of the power of communities coming together to implement policy, systems, and environmental change to create healthy people in healthy communities. 

From Grand Marais I went to Grand Portage to attend the 2 day American Indian Health Symposium. It was there that the stories became almost too painful to hear. But balancing that was the commitment that I saw in the tribal leaders to craft a new narrative. Despite the painful stories, I left the Symposium with a sense of hope and some new partners in our efforts to create a healthy  future for all people of this state.

Now, less than 24 hours from being in Grand Portage, I'm in Glen Cove, NY at an Excellence in State Public Health Law sponsored by the Aspen Foundation with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.The purpose of this meeting is "to establish a dialogue among policy makers, scholars, commentators, and analysts about the most important public health law policy issues facing the country." Despite being in a markedly different environment, the focus is exactly the same as the  focus of our discussions in Duluth, Grand Marais, and Grand Portage - how do we create a healthier society.

The meeting started with a presentation by former Washington Governor Christine Gregoire. She talked about the importance of public health to all parts of our society/economy. She gave one of  the best Health in All Policies speeches I've heard. It resonated with the agency heads and staff, elected officials, and Governor's office staff. 

Minnesota is one of 8 states invited to this meeting along with Arkansas, Connecticut, Louisiana, Virginia, Rhode Island, Washington, and Hawaii. Our team consists of four legislators (2 senators and 2 representatives with both parties represented), the Governor's legislative director, commissioners of Public Safety and Human Services, Manny Munson-Regala, and me. Our focus will  be to find ways to address alcohol misuse through public policies. The meeting starts in earnest tomorrow and I'll let you know what I learn.

What I've already learned from this interesting week is that health is core to everyone's existence and that the creation of health in our communities will require the efforts of everyone, not just those in the medical care and public health sectors. And there's more learning ahead.  I'm hoping that tomorrow we learn how to engage people in all sectors and get them to work together to make our society as healthy as possible.


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