PLAYERS, Optum host discussion on health equity in Northeast Florida

Health care leaders address root causes, propose solutions for disparities


In two Jacksonville ZIP codes five minutes apart – 32209 and 32207 – life expectancy differs by 15 years.

In an effort to address the root causes of disparity in health outcomes – not just in that part of Jacksonville but everywhere – a panel of five experts gathered Friday, March 5, at TPC Sawgrass for a virtual discussion accessible to the public via Zoom.

“Place Matters: Understanding Conditions that Influence Health” was hosted by THE PLAYERS and its Proud Partner, Optum.

Charles Griggs, a board member for 100 Black Men of America, a men’s service organization with a focus on mentoring, was the moderator for the discussion, which began by looking at health disparities between Northeast Florida counties.

According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, St. Johns County ranks first in the state for quality health outcomes. By comparison, Clay ranked 27th, Nassau 33rd, Duval 45th and Baker 49th.

Dr. Leon Haley Jr., UF Health CEO, broke down the outcomes into two elements: length of life and quality of life. The latter related directly to the discussion topic as this was the realm in which disparities could be identified and solutions proposed.

One of the central issues was the relationship between health and social determinants, such as education, employment, housing, transportation and infrastructure.

“If you’re food insecure, and you don’t know where your next meal is going to come from, everything else is null and void,” said Dr. Laureen Husband, director of public policy and community engagement for Feeding Northeast Florida.

She said that in 2020, her organization provided 55 million pounds of food to those in need. To move people away from food lines and toward a more desirable outcome, she suggested the creation of community-based, nonprofit grocery stores.

That’s because many live in areas considered “food deserts” where there are no groceries nearby. The reason for this is that small communities cannot financially sustain a supermarket.

“Take out the ‘super,’ and just concentrate on the market,” Husband said. “We need to have a market that that community, based on income level, will be able to support.”

A major factor in health outcomes, as identified during the discussion, is poverty.

David Garfunkel, CEO of Lift Jax, a community-based initiative aimed at eradicating poverty in one of Jacksonville’s hardest hit neighborhoods, said the model his organization uses has four pillars: mixed-income housing, cradle-to-career education, community wellness and long-term financial vitality.

He also emphasized the importance of working in partnership with residents rather than just coming in to make changes unilaterally. It was a perspective echoed by other panel members.

Michael Currie, senior vice president and chief health equity officer for UnitedHealth Group, proposed three things needed to address health disparities: commitment, partnerships and resources.

“Partnerships are important,” he said, “because no organization can address this by themselves.”

It was a point also expressed by others.

Megan Denk, representing the Northeast Florida Healthy Start Coalition, addressed one area that affected the health outcomes for a community: the rate of infant mortality.

“Why in 2021 are we still dealing with infant mortality?” she asked rhetorically. “We have modern science and modern medicine.”

She said that, in 2018, 147 babies in the region did not make it to their first birthdays. Examining the causes, social determinants reappeared. Sixty-one percent of the women in these cases didn’t have access to health care prior to their pregnancies.

Poverty, a source of stress, was also a key factor.

“The women are dealing with toxic stress,” Denk said.

This led to a discussion of the shortage of behavioral health services. Institutional racism was also identified as a source of disparities.

Though solutions were proposed, Haley emphasized a need to address the myriad issues one step at a time.

“It is not a quick fix,” he said. “These are long-term problems. It took years to get to the problems, and it’s going to take years to solve them, but we have the resources if necessary.”

The panel discussion was one of several events and activities that THE PLAYERS Championship hosts to generate awareness and support for organizations and communities in the five-county area.


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