The O'Malley administration launched an effort Thursday to bring medical services to disadvantaged neighborhoods by designating the state's first five "health enterprise zones" created under a law passed last year.

One of the areas selected for such a zone, aimed at bringing health care to the poor, is in West Baltimore, where the Bon Secours Health System will take a lead role.

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who led the administration's efforts to start the four-year, $16 million pilot project, announced that the other four zones will be in Annapolis, Capitol Heights (Prince George's County), Greater Lexington Park (St. Mary's County) and Dorchester-Caroline counties.

The program's goals include reducing health disparities among races and ethnic groups, improving access to care in communities that lack services, and reducing costs and hospital admissions.

The program will offer tax breaks and other incentives to physicians and community groups to bring medical care to underserved neighborhoods. The zones were chosen after community coalitions identified areas with a documented history of poverty and poor health. The five zones were selected from 19 proposals submitted by local health care coalitions.

Where a person lives is considered one of the best predictors of overall health. In Baltimore, for example, a recent study found that the life expectancy of white residents of Roland Park is about 30 years longer than that of African-Americans who live in Upton/Druid Heights.

Brown, who was credited by health care advocates as the driving force behind the initiative, said the program will bring more than 100 health care providers, including 37 primary-care physicians, to the selected communities. The bill creating the program was part of the administration's 2012 legislative agenda and was the first bill Gov. Martin O'Malley signed last year.

Sen. Verna Jones-Rodwell, a Democrat who represents many of the West Baltimore neighborhoods included in the zone, said the program will bring needed services to communities that have been neglected for decades.

"This has been in the making for three years," she said. "This is the first time this kind of collaboration has happened in the city of Baltimore."

Dr. Samuel Ross, chief executive of Bon Secours, said the program will emphasize connecting residents of low-income neighborhoods with primary care and preventive services.

"What we can do free, we will. Otherwise it will have to be low-cost to be available to this population that we serve," he said. The West Baltimore zone is defined as the areas with ZIP codes 21216, 21217, 21223 and 21229.

Among other things, Ross said, the zone coalition will hire community outreach workers from the local population to bring information to residents and encourage them to seek the help they need

Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, secretary of health and mental hygiene, said the state will seek grant money in the hope that it can expand the zone program to some of the 14 areas that were not selected.

"We do not want to have to wait for four years," he said.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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