Howard wants residents' input on ways to improve health

Long workdays and extended commutes to Baltimore and Washington have left many Howard County residents with less time to exercise and fewer chances to cook at home, the county's top health official says, often causing them to choose restaurants with their larger food portions.

The time-crunched lifestyle has caused obesity to remain a persistent health concern in one of Maryland's wealthiest counties, said Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, Howard's health officer. In less-affluent communities, obesity is often a result of fewer choices for affordable, healthier food.

Obesity was among the top priorities identified by a committee of 50 people from local faith, housing, community and health groups, who devised a draft of Howard's health action plan. The plan also raised concerns about access to health care and behavioral programs and is intended to guide state and federal spending as well as grants from hospitals, Beilenson said.

The report will be submitted for community feedback at two forums next week. The State Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has asked every county to establish goals to improve the overall health.

Howard has consistently ranked as one of the state's healthiest counties in part because of its residents' income and education levels, as well as county-led efforts, such as smoking bans in county parks. The county's innovative Healthy Howard program provides health care access plans for the uninsured who have limited income.

Howard was the healthiest county in Maryland for the past two years, according to a study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. That report measured residents' quality of life, smoking behaviors, social and economic conditions, and environmental factors.

Beilenson, who previously was Baltimore's health officer, said the social factors that affect health in Howard County are different from those in the city, but obesity remains a concern throughout Maryland. And despite the Healthy Howard program, he said outreach to make those who qualify aware of coverage is a persistent challenge and will remain so even as federal health care reform takes effect.

Beilenson said the group also raised concerns about access substance abuse and mental health treatment, because there are not enough providers in the community. The committee also called for improved communication among medical professionals, he said.

The plan "comes with money this time the money is directed to the objectives," he said.

The three issues identified are only part of a draft, which could change depending on community input he said, adding that suggestions on how to achieve those goals.

"We could like to hear suggestions for strategies," he said.

A draft of the plan must be submitted by the county March 1.

When a plan is approved by the state, Beilenson said the Howard Health Counts website will chart the progress of each goal.

Forums scheduled on health plan

Oakland Mills High School, 9410 Kilimanjaro Road, Columbia: Tuesday, Feb. 21, 7 p.m.-8 p.m.

Howard County Health Department Administrative Offices, 7178 Columbia Gateway Drive, Columbia: Wednesday, Feb. 22, 12:30 p.m.-1:30 p.m.

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