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March 23, 2013

Report: Cambria health lagging

JOHNSTOWN — Cambria County remained one of the least healthy in Pennsylvania and Somerset County slipped down into the middle of the pack on the new County Health Rankings report.

Philadelphia is the least healthy county and neighboring Chester the healthiest in the state.

The report released last week by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute evaluated Pennsylvania’s 67 counties on more than two dozen factors the researchers believe influence a person’s health. They include individual healthy behavior markers such as obesity and smoking, as well as social and economic factors like education, violent crime, health care access, family support, education and unemployment.

Cambria moved up one spot to 62 after being 63rd last year. Cambria was 64th in both 2010 and 2011, the first two years of the rankings.

Somerset slipped from 22nd place last year to 35th this year. Bedford and Indiana also lost positions, while Blair inched up from 58th to 56th on this  year’s report.

Cambria County scored low in morbidity and mortality, ranked 56th for premature death numbers and 63rd in areas that include low birth weight and self-reported feelings of poor health.

Higher-than-average rates of smoking, obesity, physical inactivity and excessive drinking contributed to a ranking of 62 for Cambria in the health behaviors category. A high number of fast-food restaurants and limited access to healthy foods and recreation facilities pushed the county to No. 61 on the physical environment category.

Cambria did better in the clinical care area, coming in at 35 out of 67. The study compared rates of uninsured residents, the number of primary care doctors and dentists, preventable hospital days and the number of preventive screenings.

Many of the negative factors are shared with other urban and distressed areas, said Dr. James Marks of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“It turns out that social and economic factors are the most powerful (health) predictors,” Marks said. “We can’t treat our way out of our high health care costs. ... Where and how people live, learn, work and play greatly affects their health.”

Union, Centre, Cumberland and Snyder counties in central Pennsylvania round out the top five healthiest. The report ranks the five unhealthiest counties as Philadelphia, Fayette, Greene, Sullivan and Forest, which fare worse than state averages in child poverty, single-parent households, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle.

Cambria’s results mirror the Community Needs Assessment completed last year by United Way of the Laurel Highlands, said Dr. David Carlson, chief medical officer of the Conemaugh Health System.

Unemployment, lack of sufficient medical and mental health coverage, substance abuse and disengaged parents were cited in the United Way assessment as common factors leading to the collapse of family support systems in this region.

“I think they both hit it,” Carlson said. “We struggle with our youth. Most of our newborn population comes from mothers who are in poverty. That creates a cycle.”

Poverty leads to a lack of opportunities, both socially and economically, he continued.

Among seniors, educational barriers and lack of family support make it hard for many to understand the options available, he said.

As a health system, Conemaugh is working to focus on wellness, Carlson said, adding that changes coming through health reform must make prevention more profitable than simply treating conditions.

But the economy must support the changes, he added.

“The real elixir here is jobs,” Carlson said.

The top 20 healthiest counties overall are Chester, Union, Centre, Cumberland, Snyder, Montgomery, Juniata, Lancaster, Bucks, Butler, Pike, Adams, Lebanon, Franklin, Tioga, Lycoming, Berks, Lehigh, York and Clinton.  

The bottom 20 counties are Philadelphia, Fayette, Greene, Sullivan, Forest, Cambria, Elk, Jefferson, Lawrence, Lackawanna, Luzerne, Blair, Potter, Wyoming, Schuylkill, Susquehanna, Mercer, Perry, Erie and McKean.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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