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WASHINGTON - Better access to health care data helps local governments improve preventive health policies aimed at reducing overall medical costs, say researchers who released the third annual national County Health Rankings today.

In general, the study shows that excessive drinking rates are highest in the Northern states, while Southern states have the highest rates of teen births, sexually transmitted infections and children in poverty.

Though there has been little change in the overall statistics nationwide, officials use the findings to try to improve local health.

5% of patients account for half of health care spending
In Hernando, Miss., for example, Mayor Chip Johnson said the city saved so much on health care costs after one health fair that everyone got a 2% raise.

"It is going to take communities a while to improve their health," said Bridget Catlin, director of county health at County Health Rankings and Roadmaps. Businesses and non-profits use the rankings, available at www.countyhealthrankings.org, to talk to politicians about what they can do to help.

"Businesses are concerned about costs," Catlin said. "And they're starting to do more in the workplace. But if you go home and there's no access to fresh food or a safe place to walk every day, then the lifestyle does not change."

The rankings come from the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The rankings use death rates, air pollution rates, income levels, health access, physical inactivity rates and access to healthy foods.

In Hernando, Miss., Johnson, a Republican, said the government requires all new developments to include sidewalks to make it easier for residents to walk and exercise.

He set up a health fair for city employees and watched premiums decrease by 15%. Johnson used that to give his employees a 2% raise. "If we prevent two heart attacks, that lowers our premiums," he said. "The first thing is always knowledge."

This week, the city is installing a gym for employees.

When Johnson realized what was working for his community, he started working with other communities nearby to show them what worked. They do training sessions throughout the state. The solutions include new parks, bike laws, farmer's markets and community gardens - all workable and comparatively cheap, he said.

"This is preventive also," Johnson said. "This is going to save us dollars down the road."

Other governments lack the resources or inclination to do more, said Jim McVay, director of health promotion at the Alabama Department of Public Health. "There's virtually no money for obesity education, and smoking prevention comes only through federal grants."

Alabama, he said, could benefit from policies that can limit health care spending.

"We know Alabama has one of the highest rates of obesity," he said. "Diabetes has skyrocketed - it certainly gives us an idea of where we're going."

Some Alabama communities, McVay said, are trying to improve the quality of school lunches or attract markets or grocery stores to neighborhoods that don't have them. The health rankings show that communities with little or no access to fresh food have more health problems.

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