As our nation rapidly approaches 1 million recorded deaths due to COVID-19, our Florida government officials loudly proclaim that masks and vaccinations are unnecessary. Public health has become as taboo of a subject as climate change. It is clear who suffers the most from ignorance of both: ethnic minorities and our underprivileged low-income neighbors.
US and Florida Leagues of Women Voters are clear: “The US health care system should provide a basic level of quality health care at an affordable cost to all US residents. Basic care includes disease prevention, primary care (including prenatal and reproductive health), acute long-term care, mental health care, as well as health promotion and education.”
Alachua County has a vision to become, “A community where everyone can be healthy.” That vision of more than a decade is only now being invigorated.
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The Alachua County Community Health Improvement Plan, effective January 2021 through December 2024, sets strategic priorities for access to health care. It covers preventative and primary care, dental and mental health, and community wellness in terms of food and nutrition, chronic disease prevention and affordable housing.
Future assessments of progress can be measured against the University of Florida Bureau of Economic and Business Research’s 2018 report on racial disparity. Clearly, inequities in income and wealth are key to geographic disparities in health and health care.
The city and county, collaborating with UF Health, are following through on recommendations of a 2020 panel convened by then-Gainesville City Commissioner Gigi Simmons. Funding for an urgent care center on Hawthorne Road was approved on March 2.
Yet, as Alachua County Commissioner Anna Prizzia noted, the urgent care center is the least that can be done to develop infrastructure and personnel. She recommends that UF Health hire public health workers for outreach, education and employment in east Gainesville. Prioritizing wellness and prevention will reduce the costs to us all.
The Alachua County Health Care Advisory Board and its four subcommittees propose improvements in service to low-income residents for dental health, primary care, mental health, outreach and case management. We note the success of the Southwest Advocacy Group in southwest Gainesville as a model, and the successes of James Lawrence with Gainesville for All in east Gainesville.
The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 to the present has unmasked systematic inequities in health care. Florida’s refusal to expand Medicaid surely contributed to increased burdens of hospitalizations and deaths due to the pandemic.
Meanwhile, rising temperatures, wildfires and hurricanes are costing residents their health and earnings, especially those in older and less durable housing. Wildfires pose the highest risk to Alachua County, resulting in higher cases of lung disease due to poor air quality.
The changing climate also results in more migration into north central Florida, further stressing a tight housing market. Homelessness, a primary factor in health inequity, is one result. Lack of affordable health care and health insurance add to the economic burden.
Improvements in mental health, dental health disease prevention, nutrition and education are all needed. Nutrition is the basis for good general health and has been the subject of futile attempts by Gainesville and Alachua County to eliminate our “food deserts” with more grocery stores. Funding is needed, although some is available due to US support in the wake of the pandemic.
The health of Alachua County depends not only on the fitness of its well-off residents. It must concern us all. Deficits and inequities in health cost everyone due to stresses on our health care workers and hospitals, increased taxes, insurance costs and reduced productivity that result. We can do better.
dr Jeffrey Shapiro chairs the Local Issues Committee of the Alachua County chapter of the League of Women Voters and serves on the chapter’s board. Former Gainesville City Commissioner Gigi Simmons is a member of the committee and the chapter’s board. Lynn Frazier is president of the chapter.
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