One unique aspect about Health Forward’s service area is the diversity of communities we serve. We work with rural areas such as Allen County, Kansas; the suburbs of Johnson County; and urban communities such as Kansas City, Missouri. Some of the communities we serve overlap these designations. Take Cass County, Missouri for instance – its northern portion includes the outer suburbs of Metropolitan Kansas City, while it southern portion is mostly rural.
The challenge for us as an organization is to understand the particular needs of each of these different types of communities, while keeping their individual context in mind.
As a Program Officer who works with Cass County, I’ve been tremendously encouraged with recent developments that are positioning Cass County to become a regional leader in developing healthy rural communities.
In many health areas, Cass County is already a success story. The 2011 county health rankings from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation ranked Cass County the 16th healthiest county in Missouri out of 114 counties. In general, its population is well educated and it ranks better than many Missouri counties on measures such as low infant birthweight and teen birth rate. Access to health care has also improved as the Cass Regional Medical Center expanded and opened a new facility in 2009.
Yet it also shares many of the same challenges that other rural counties face, such as access to mental health care and substance abuse treatment, and access to specialty health care providers and dentists. Access to healthy food is also an issue in certain parts of Cass County. In addition, 27 percent of its residents are uninsured, as 16 percent of residents lack health insurance and 11 percent are on Medicaid.
These are issues that cut across demographics and affect all of the communities in Cass County. That’s why I’ve been so encouraged to see leaders across Cass County coming together to address these issues.
One group, the Cass County Oral Health Coalition, has been meeting for nearly two years and worked to secure funding for Cass County’s first full-time dental clinic for low-income and uninsured children, which opens this summer. This diverse and influential coalition includes dentists, school administrators, Cass County Health Department representatives, the Belton police chief, and a county commissioner.
Another group of community leaders, which was started as a Community Health Assessment Resource Team (CHART) by the Missouri Hospital Association and the Missouri Department of Health, has been meeting since 1997. They’ve been involved in community efforts such as suicide prevention, addressing child abuse and neglect, and creating a Cass County resource directory.
Recently the CHART group has been refining their purpose and key activities, which has reinvigorated the group while creating new conversations and relationships. These are the forums where new ideas are born, planting the seeds for a dynamic and healthy future.
Cass County is on the right path to improving the quality of life and the health of all of its residents. This will continue to make Cass County an attractive community for visitors and new businesses, and ultimately serve as a model for other similar communities.