Max Denning

Oregon ranked 21st in the United Health Foundation’s latest grading of states in its annual report known as America’s Health Rankings released in 2018. The state was regarded highly for its abundance of mental health professionals, its low levels of physical inactivity and low levels of cardiovascular deaths. Dragging the state’s health standing down were a low statewide high school graduation rate, a high prevalence of frequent mental distress and low meningococcal immunization coverage among adolescents.

The United Health Foundation is a not-for-profit private organization dedicated to improving health and health care. It was founded in 1999 by the for-profit United Health Group, the largest health care company in the world and listed as the fifth largest company in terms of revenue by Fortune in 2018.

The company has been ranking states’ health for 29 years, which, according to the foundation’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Rhonda Randall, is the longest standing report of its kind. The ranking includes 35 different measures of health, broken down into five categories: outcomes, community and environment, policy, clinical care and behaviors.

In the past few years, Oregon has hovered around 20th, ranking either 20th or 21st every year since 2015. Prior to 2015, Oregon had ranked as high as eighth (in 2011). Many of the state’s strongest areas can be found in the clinical care category, ranking in the top 15 for its mental health providers, dentists and preventable hospitalizations. In the totaling of each clinical care subsection, Oregon ranks third among all states.

The worst area among the 35 measures for Oregon was the high school graduation rate. While not a typical area of measurement for wellness, Randall said health officials notice a relationship between education and health.

“We believe there is a correlation between high school graduation and having a higher income status through the course of the rest of your life, being more likely to have insurance because of employability,” Randall said. “Also (high school graduates have) higher health literacy, being better able to understand the instructions your doctors give you about your health.”

Another area ripe for improvement in the state is the vaccination rate — specifically for meningococcal immunizations, for which the state ranks 41st. According to the Center for Disease Control the meningococcal vaccines can help prevent meningococcal diseases, “which is any type of illness caused by Neisseria meningitidis bacteria.” Oregonians have been known to be averse to vaccines.

In 2013, an article in The Oregonian called the state the “country’s most vaccine-skeptical state.” While that claim may be arguable, vaccination rates are still an issue in the Beaver state.

Carrie Brogoitti, a public health administrator at the Center for Human Development in La Grande, said CHD has been working on addressing low vaccination rates.

“I know there have been a lot of efforts in the state of Oregon to increase the vaccination rates,” Brogoitti said. “Some of the universities in the state have adopted university-specific policies that require the (meningococcal) vaccine.”

Eastern Oregon University requires two doses of the measles vaccine and recommends the meningococcal vaccine, but does not require it.

While Brogoitti complimented America’s Health Rankings for its inclusion of high school graduation rates, she and other officials at CHD said the rankings don’t always ring true.

Aaron Grigg, the mental health director at CHD, said while Portland and other metro areas in the state may have an abundance of mental health professionals, that’s not the case in Northeast Oregon.

“We do have some great mental health workers in this part of the state, but the challenge is getting people to relocate here,” Grigg said, noting individuals can’t receive a master’s degree in social work or mental health counseling in Northeast Oregon. “We do what we can to attract people, but it’s always a challenge. I would say there’s a shortage of qualified behavioral health workers in Eastern Oregon.”

Grigg and his colleagues agreed the rankings may be useful to see what the state can work on, but the report’s findings reflect a very broad perspective.

“We’re in rural Eastern Oregon and the numbers don’t play out the same here,” Grigg said. “They’re very heavily based on the Portland metroplex area, and as we know, that’s where a lot of the state’s resources go.”

Regardless of the rankings, CHD and other local organizations are working to improve the health of individuals and communities in Northeast Oregon. Grigg mentioned work by CHD to provide physical and mental health support in schools for students.

“We know the earlier you can identify (a problem) for anything, the better the prognosis is,” Grigg said.

Even if the rankings may not represent the realities of health care in each of Oregon’s regions, Randall said it’s clear the state, and the nation at large, has room to improve when it comes to the health of its communities.

To view America’s Health Rankings’ entire annual report and see where each state ranked, you can visit www.americashealthrankings.org.

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