Thursday, September 02, 2010
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The story of Healthy Communities Partnership

Part 1: Health department vision put Logan County ahead

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[September 02, 2010]  Five months ago, when the Health Care Reform Act was enacted to increase access to fundamental health privileges in the United States, one Logan County organization was already 13 years ahead of the process.

Healthy Communities Partnership is a grass-roots organization that set out in 1997 to make Logan County "the healthiest community in America." Services began in a large, multicolored, corn-emblazoned bus, which traveled to outlying communities to provide basic health care access.

Now boasting seven task forces, 56 organizations, 14 churches and an ever-increasing number of volunteers, the presence of the Healthy Communities Partnership in the community is as strong as ever -- yet many local residents remain unaware of the group's existence.

Branches of the Logan County Department of Public Health started the partnership in response to the Illinois Project for Local Assessment of Needs, or IPLAN, required every five years for certification with the Illinois Department of Public Health.

"With the IPLANs, they're supposed to come up with the health priorities for each county," said Kristin Lessen, director of the Healthy Communities Partnership. "And at that time, access to care was one of the priorities. So the hospital (Abraham Lincoln Memorial), the health department, the (Family) Medical Center, the chamber of commerce and Mental Health (Center) all became involved. A federal grant was written to try to increase access to people in the outlying areas, which is what brought about the 'corn bus.'"

The "corn bus" -- as it came to be affectionately known in the community for its bright exterior colors and graphics -- made its first rounds in early 1998. Public health nurses from the health department and a nurse practitioner from Family Medical Center hit the road five days a week, offering primary and preventive health care to rural residents in the outlying communities of Logan County.

Nurses with the unit focused on educating patients about common conditions, to prevent complications, in addition to providing free screenings and other services.

The demand for mobile health care eventually led to improved resources. After traveling what would be 3.67 times around the world, the original mobile unit was replaced by an even larger unit.

In 2006, the HOPE Mobile was launched. Living up to the unit's name -- Healthcare, Oral Health, Prevention, Education -- the staff began reserving three days a month for dental appointments, particularly for children on Medicaid or without dental insurance.

Now, the HOPE Mobile crew is in the midst of their busiest season of the year -- school physical time.

"We're (in) the school and athletic physical season, so that's always a big time on the HOPE Mobile," Lessen said. "I've actually received four or five phone calls today about school physicals. That tends to be a big draw, especially going out into the smaller communities."

The other six task forces that have since been created or brought under the Healthy Communities Partnership are Alcohol, Tobacco & Other Drugs, known as ATOD; Healthy Families; Domestic Abuse & Violence; Senior Issues; Parish Nurses; and, most recently, Education.

Along with the HOPE Mobile, ATOD was also formed from the concerns listed in the initial needs assessment required by the state.

Lessen's involvement with the partnership began with the addition of the ATOD Task Force. Like many of the volunteers heading the organization, her work with Healthy Communities Partnership went hand in hand with her job as the substance abuse prevention specialist at Mental Health.

"Everyone involved (in HCP) is a volunteer," Lessen said. "There are no paid people other than HOPE Mobile staff and myself. For a lot of the task force volunteers, it can be considered part of their jobs. But there are a lot of people who are committed to the partnership and it's important to them to be a part of it."

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One major project of the ATOD Task Force is the Safe Ride program, which sponsors free cab services on major holidays to prevent drinking and driving.

"We kicked it off on Thanksgiving eve, because that's considered 'drunksgiving eve,' I guess is what it's called," Lessen said. "So we decided we needed to do something to address that. ... We (also) offered it Saturday and Sunday nights (of the July 4 weekend), and there were no DUIs either of those days in Lincoln."

Other services that HCP sponsors are activities that are not only practical but fun. Last month, ATOD hosted a free community swim party and barbecue at the Lincoln Park District pool, and the Senior Issues Task Force offered a senior resource fair, where 25 vendors promoted available services as well as events such as a dance coming up in November.

The most recent task force is gearing up to tackle issues that arise during the school year. Created in late 2008, the Education Task Force works primarily to decrease truancy in schools and increase graduation rates.

"(The Education Task Force) is not health care-related," Lessen said. "However, a lot of the other things the task forces work on kind of contribute to the dropout and truancy rates: teen pregnancy, substance abuse, violence, child abuse, you know. It does kind of directly relate to the economic health of the community. With our mission being to improve the health and quality of life of the people we serve, I kind of think this counts as part of that as well."

Also working to "improve the health and quality of life" are the Healthy Families Task Force, which aims to decrease teen pregnancy and STD rates; the Domestic Abuse & Violence Task Force, which seeks to decrease domestic abuse and foster community awareness; and the Parish Nurses Task Force, which reaches patients in need through church and community services.

With the growth of the Healthy Communities Partnership and its involvement in community affairs, Lessen said she hopes to consolidate available resources.

"We try to get as many of these agencies and organizations to work together to decrease duplication of services, because there are a lot of different organizations trying to do a lot of the same things, and that's kind of counterproductive," she said.

The Abraham Lincoln Health Care Foundation seeded more than $1 million in an endowment to help fund the services of the Healthy Community Partnership. While some grants come in, Lessen said that because of the current state of the economy, "it's hard right now."

But the biggest concern Lessen cites is a promotional lull within the organization.

"You know, after 12 years, you kind of get stuck in a rut," she said. "There are still people who don't know what we do. And, we're trying to come up with, I guess, innovative ways of improving the health.

"I think our biggest concern right now is getting people to remember that they don't have to drive all the way into Lincoln for something and trying to get them to remember what we're there for."


Online: Healthy Communities Partnership


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