Health Care

A Busy Ryan Discusses Health Care at Conference

HOWLAND, Ohio – In the thick of a race to become House minority leader, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan is always busy.

Minutes after speaking at the Innovations 2.0: Building Healthier Communities conference, he was whisked away to do an interview on MSNBC in the back of a van outfitted for live uplinks to TV networks. The van has been rented for most of the week so Ryan can be interviewed whenever and wherever he needs to.

Afterward, he sat down in The Avalon Inn’s Grand Pavilion for a lengthy interview with a reporter from The New Republic about the contest to be the Democrats’ leader in the House of Representatives.

But crammed into a busy schedule – Ryan, D-13 Ohio, flew back to northeastern Ohio from the capital early Monday afternoon and had several news networks call to request interviews throughout the day – the Niles native made time to address community health issues in his home district.

And while two political topics came up during the question-and-answer session following his keynote speech – including one brief mention of the race against Nancy Pelosi – the discussion stuck largely to health.

“The big driver of our deficit is health care spending – Medicare and Medicaid. The biggest drag on private businesses is health care costs,” Ryan told the audience. “If we’re going to address an issue that has an impact, it’s the one of health, well-being and prevention.”

In five years, he said, half of the United State will have either diabetes or pre-diabetes. Today, Americans on average consume 70 more pounds of sugar than they did 40 years ago because of the rise of their consumption of processed foods such as high fructose corn syrup.

“We’re subsidizing the food that’s making us sick,” he said. “We’ve got to fix the system. I’m proposing we subsidize crops that are fresh fruits and vegetables, that we help schools grow out gardens and a new food system, that we bring back home economics 2.0 and start teaching kids how to do it themselves.”

In Congress’s next farm bill – which comes up for a vote every five years – Ryan said there are efforts on both sides of the aisle to provide an incentive for farmers to grow fruits and vegetables rather than cash crops. Also on the table is funding for schools to install salad bars in their cafeterias, providing students with more access to healthful foods.

Ryan also advocated the use of wellness training in schools to teach students how to be mentally and emotionally stable. He pointed to students at Rayen Early College, who over the school year are reading the congressman’s book, A Mindful Nation. Earlier this fall, Ryan visited the 80-student class and helped them through meditation techniques. The session, originally scheduled to last just under an hour, stretched to 75 minutes as students kept talking about the importance of mindfulness in their daily lives.

Following the introduction of social emotional learning in Warren City Schools, the district saw the number of out-of-school suspensions drop to 14 last school year, down from the 70s five years ago. And during that time, half of the students in Warren Schools who came to emotional counseling did so via self-referral. That shows, Ryan noted, that kids understand the impact of emotion in their lives.

“We’re going to get better students who are better behaved, who deal with emotional stress,” he said. “We’re never going to change the neighborhoods in these school districts if we don’t change the kids in the neighborhoods. We’re teaching them how to de-escalate problems rather than escalate them.”

But beyond the causes he’s best known for as a congressman, Ryan added that community health is an issue that spreads beyond just one or two sectors. It’s something that stretches across every industry and sector in a community.

“It’s important to get people here together because it can’t stay contained within one tiny hermetically sealed bottle. It has to reach into the communities,” he said, noting he saw people from the insurance, health care, education and even real estate at the Innovations 2.0 conference. “That’s how you get a cross-fertilization of ideas,” he said.

That’s exactly what the conference was intended to do, said Shari Harrell, president of the Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley. Created by the William Swanston Charitable Fund, a component of the Community Foundation, the original Innovations conference was aimed primarily at the health issues children face. In discussions with some of the Community Foundation’s other funds, the foundation discerned that community health as a whole was a major point its staff wanted to address. As a result, the Swanston Fund, the Western Reserve Foundation and Trumbull Memorial Health Foundation joined to create Innovations 2.0.

“If we really want to have lasting, significant health outcomes and changes, we have to go upstream and think about the bigger picture – what are the factors that influence health,” Harrell explained.

Clinical care is just a fraction of community health, she said. Also contributing are environmental factors and social factors such as income, education and transportation.

“All of those things have a much more significant impact on health. That’s the focus of health equity,” Harrell said. “This is the beginning of a conversation to create a cross-sector collaborative approach to dealing with our health issues.”

The keynote speaker for the morning session of the conference was Ohio State University professor of city and regional planning Jason Reece. Through his research, he’s found that while many areas are developing programs to support community wellness, there isn’t much dialogue among them, thus limiting their effectiveness.

“They’re programmatically rich, but systematically poor,” he says. “You have a lot of resources and expertise and assets, but a lack of coordination, which undermines their effectiveness. It’s a foundational step to do that alignment.”

And when community health, especially in urban centers, covers such a broad spectrum of issues, that alignment is crucial. Even problems such as vacant houses and rundown properties, not to mention toxins such as lead or asbestos in some homes, play a role in the health of a neighborhood.

“There are people dealing with a high level of chronic stress on a daily basis. That’s wear and tear on them daily, mentally and physiologically,” Reece said. “We’re learning that it’s a much wider set of issues that we have to work on if we’re going to improve health outcomes.”

And with that broad goal in mind, Harrell said, reaching out to more groups in more sectors was a no-brainer. The attendance of Monday’s daylong conference was double that of the past few years of the original Innovations conference, an inspiring sign.

For next year’s conference, she added, there are groups the organizing foundations are looking to bring into the fold, namely neighborhood associations. It’s those groups that can condense the wide-ranging strategies into a plan that will work best for their area.

“We don’t just want to walk in and say, ‘We’re going to fix things.’ That’s not what this is about,” she said. “It’s about identifying what’s important to these people.”

Pictured: Ryan addresses Innovations 2.0, a conference held Monday at the Avalon Inn.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.