The study, released this week, shows Alabama improved to 45th from 48th in the ranking between 2011 and 2012 due to gains in the areas of child poverty, occupational fatalities and health insurance coverage. However the study also shows the state still has exceptionally high rates of obesity, diabetes and people with sedentary lifestyles.
United Health Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to improving health care across the country, compiled the study with data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Medical Association, the FBI, the U.S. Department of Education and the Census Bureau. The study includes many factors to develop state rankings, from measurements of health to incidents of violent crime and high school graduation rates.
The study shows Alabama’s level of childhood poverty improved in ranking to 28th from 39th, while the state’s rate of occupational fatalities improved to 28th in the country from 32nd. Also, the percentage of Alabamians with either private or public health insurance improved to 27th best from 32nd.
Jim Carnes, spokesman for Alabama Arise, a nonpartisan group that advocates for low-income residents, said his organization has seen enrollment in Medicaid increase since the recession hit in 2008, particularly enrollment for children, which might partly account for the state’s improvements in insurance rates and childhood poverty.
According to the Alabama Medicaid Agency, which administers the federal Medicaid program in the state for low-income children and the elderly, this year there are 902,870 Medicaid recipients — people who received at least one service through the program. Last year, there were 893,312 recipients.
“It’s bad that they need it but it’s good that they have it,” Carnes said, referring to Medicaid enrollment. “Nobody likes to see an increased need for safety net programs, but at the same time we need strong programs for these folks.”
While childhood poverty might have lessened overall around the state, Maudine Holloway has not seen economic conditions improve for local poor residents as director of the Community Enabler Developer in Anniston. Community Enabler is a nonprofit that provides low-income residents with basic needs like food and clothing.
“It’s probably more, it has not lessened,” Holloway said of the need in the area. “I’m seeing a lot of people I have never seen before — a big thing is they need help paying utility bills.”
The study shows Alabama still has high rates of obesity, ranking 47th in the country. Alabama has about 1.2 million obese adults and another 1.2 million adults with sedentary lifestyles. Alabama also ranks 46th in incidents of diabetes, with 434,000 residents with the disease. Smoking rates remain high as well at 24.3 percent of the population or 900,000 adults.
Dr. Tim Garvey, chairman of the department of nutrition sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said obesity is a major problem in the state and is the main contributing factor to many other ailments in the state, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
“We’re one of the worst in terms of obesity and there are a lot of health care costs that come with it,” Garvey said.
Garvey said the cost of diabetes, for example, is considerable. He said studies show that it costs about $6,000 to take care of a patient with diabetes, compared to $2,000 to care for a patient without the disease.
“There is also many more sedentary people in the state … all of this goes hand in hand with diabetes and cardiovascular issues,” Garvey said.
Garvey noted that it would not take much weight loss for Alabamians to vastly improve their health. He said if most overweight Alabamians lost 5 percent of their body weight — about 10 pounds for a 200-pound man — their health would benefit considerably.
“If they can just lose a modest amount and keep it off, it would be enough to do a lot for their metabolism and stave off diabetes,” Garvey said.
And while there are new drugs on the market to control appetite and surgeries to help obese people drop weight, the best ways to get healthier are still eating healthful foods and exercising, Garvey said. He added that much more could be done in the state to educate residents about the obesity problem.
“I think we need to do more public education about the complications associated with obesity,” Garvey said.
David McCormack, CEO of Regional Medical Center in Anniston, said his hospital has been working for some time to set up a program to help more adults and children deal with their weight issues. However, funding for such programs is hard to come by, McCormack said.
“We need government grants to help us deal with it … we’ve tried to get several grants for our pediatricians,” McCormack said. “If we get one, we can do something.”
Staff Writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.