Health Forward Foundation

New Cass County Coalition Aims at Addressing Rural Health Obstacles

Tate Wood

Cass County organizers say they are nearing a milestone in their 18-month effort to improve health and coordinate services among disparate groups not known for working together.

CONNECTCass, the nonprofit organization spearheading the initiative, hopes to hire an executive director in April and be operating by June 1, according to Susan Mills-Gray, a nutrition and health specialist for the University of Missouri Extension in the county. She also chairs the CONNECTCass steering committee.

Divisions within the county (pop. 99,478) are both modern – northern bedroom communities vs. southern agriculture – and historical – dating back to Civil War animosities.

“The sides are always bumping,” Mills-Gray said. “You never know if it’s east-west, north-south, community vs. community, urban sprawl vs. ag. And so, that is just part of who the makeup of Cass County is.”

Improved coordination and communication is one of the biggest improvements for which CONNECTCass is aiming.

Mills-Gray said she doesn’t want to run across an instance, as she did recently, where a shelter for battered women, a school district, and the county juvenile office were all independently seeking grant funding to help children affected by domestic violence, but each organization unaware of the other’s efforts.

Brock Slabach said he knows firsthand how getting everyone around the table can reduce duplicated effort and decrease fragmentation of services. He’s a former hospital administrator in rural Mississippi who now serves as senior vice president for member services with the National Rural Health Association, which has its administrative offices in Kansas City, Mo.

Slabach said he was “constantly amazed” to learn through meetings or chance discussions about a community service “that we could utilize at the hospital and really take advantage of.”

Cass County has a list of problems familiar to Slabach and other rural health care providers: lack of transportation, limited public physical fitness options, and too few dentists.

(Mills-Gray said it took two years to establish a dental clinic in the county for uninsured and underinsured children. The clinic opened in July.)

But those problems are not evident to some, perhaps in part because the county fares better than many others. For instance, in the 2011 County Health Rankings sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Cass County came in 16th out of 114 Missouri counties. (Though that was down from 10th in 2010).

The ranking was mostly attributable to the relatively good health of the families in the bedroom communities just south of Kansas City, Mo, Mills-Gray said.

But other parts of the county are doing so well.

“We have some abject poverty and as rural as you can get rural in the southern part of our county,” she said.

According to the county rankings, the county ratio of population to primary care physicians is 3,009:1 – nearly five times the benchmark established by Robert Wood Johnson.

The Health Forward Foundation and the REACH Healthcare Foundation provided seed funding for CONNECTCass. The two organizations also helped establish Thrive Allen County, a similar nonprofit headquartered just across the state line in Iola, Kan.

Now in its fifth year, Thrive Allen County has an annual budget of about $300,000 and a staff equaling three full-time employees, according to Executive Director David Toland.

Some of Thrive Allen County’s most significant achievements, Toland said, have been with wellness programs, such as sponsoring a 5K run and a weight-loss challenge throughout southeast Kansas. Thrive Allen County also took an active role in convincing voters to support a county sales tax, which passed in 2010, that will help pay for a new hospital.

His advice to Cass County organizers was for them to get out into the communities, especially the small, isolated towns, listen to what residents say they need, and then meet those needs simply and creatively.

For example, children in the little town of Elsmore, Kan., needed something better than the movable basketball goal they rolled into the street.

Thrive Allen County found some used equipment the community could purchase from the daycare center at Johnson County Community College, corralled some farmers to take their flatbeds and heavy equipment there to pick it up, and then enlisted the Allen County Community College baseball team to provide some manpower.

“So now,” Toland said, “they’ve got this great playground and it makes them more attractive as a community and it helps the kids stay active a little better – actually, a lot better.”

The Health Forward Foundation and the KHI News Service, an editorially independent program of the Kansas Health Institute, are partnering to provide impactful coverage of important health and health policy issues affecting the Kansas City metropolitan area.

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