Read more: W.Va. man: diabetes programs work
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "We can beat this," said Dr. Alan Ducatman, interim dean of the West Virginia University School of Public Health. "If we decide from top to bottom that we're going to do this, we can do it."
West Virginia occupies a top slot on almost every awful health ranking: diabetes, heart disease, stroke, kidney disease and others.
"There's a new feeling that it doesn't have to be that way," said Christina Mullins, director of the state Office of Maternal Child and Family Health. "There is new energy to lower these numbers. There's a sense of urgency."
One in four West Virginia fifth-graders have high blood pressure, cholesterol and obesity, well above the national average.
As millions in health reform dollars roll into West Virginia, "we have the chance of a lifetime to make it different," said Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.
Two years from now -- if the Supreme Court doesn't strike the federal health care law down -- more than 100,000 West Virginians will get health insurance. That alone should lower the numbers, Gupta said. "People will be able to get checkups, and we'll catch a lot more diabetes and heart disease early."
"It's an exciting time to be working in health care," Mullins said. "A lot of things are possible that weren't possible before."
Federal health care reform forces agencies to cooperate, she said. "A lot of good is coming from that. People who never talked before are seeing how their pieces fit together, comparing notes, saying, 'Oh! We could work together here.'"
The state Bureau of Public Health and the state Department of Education are meeting regularly to plan for children, she said. DHHR gave the schools a half million for playgrounds. They designed a joint teen pregnancy campaign. They want to let residents of communities with no gyms use school gyms after school.
That kind of cooperation adds up to healthier communities, said Dick Wittberg, director of the Mid Ohio Valley Health Department. "Doctors or health departments can't do it alone. The schools can't do it alone. County government can't do it alone. Everyone has a part."
In 2009, Wittberg's health department got a $4.5 million federal grant to demonstrate what communities can do. They tried to choose things that would be possible without a big grant, he said.
They helped start school mountain bike and running clubs. They organized farmers markets in six counties and installed bike racks all over Parkersburg. Volunteers from the West Virginia Mountain Bike Association cut a web of biking and walking trails through six counties.
They convinced two Walmarts, three Foodlands, and now several Kroger stores to start healthy checkout aisles "so customers can have the choice of a banana instead of candy or chips."
Parkersburg is also home to the River City Runners and Walkers, a volunteer-run club with more than 1,000 members that sponsors weekly events for grownups and children. "We're making this a running town," said Sharon Marks, volunteer board president.
"Each of these things may seem small, but they add up to a community where it's easier to live a healthy life," Wittberg said.
Puzzle pieces in the air
By 2025, at the current rate, 61 percent of Americans will be diabetic or pre-diabetic, Johns Hopkins University and others estimate. An estimated 315,000 West Virginians would be diabetic, if that were to happen, and another half million would be pre-diabetic, meaning they have blood sugar close to diabetic.
Diabetes already costs West Virginia more than a billion dollars, according to the American Diabetic Association. The cost will triple in the next 10 years, the CDC estimates.
If that happens, the budget will be swamped and major new taxes or cutbacks will be needed, health care economist Ken Thorpe told the Legislature in November 2011.
His recommendation: Target diabetes. Let people know it is preventable. Diabetes leads to heart disease, stroke and other diseases and is strongly linked with obesity, he noted. "If you lower diabetes, you lower the rest."
His challenge: Help people help themselves. Set up a network of free prevention courses so any resident can get support and solid advice. Train local people to run the courses.