Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Deborah McMahan and other health experts pushed Tuesday for more state funding to combat problems including the opioid epidemic, tobacco use and high infant mortality rates.
Indiana ranks 49th among states in spending on public health, according to a recent report from the United Health Foundation that measures health indicators such as smoking rates and obesity. The state has some of the highest rates of tobacco use and residents who are overweight or obese, the report said.
“Why is our health so poor?” McMahan asked. “Because we don't fund public health.”
The comments came as part of a State of Our Health Road Show, a forum at Ivy Tech Community College's Public Safety Academy that featured doctors, community leaders and public policy experts. The nearly three-hour forum, organized by the Alliance for a Healthier Indiana, was a wide-ranging discussion on various health-related topics.
The America's Health Rankings 2017 annual report shows Indiana spends less than $62 per resident on public health funding. Only Nevada spends less, the report said.
West Virginia and Alaska top the list, spending more than $113 per resident on public health.
Dr. Tony GiaQuinta, a Fort Wayne pediatrician who is president of the Indiana American Academy of Pediatrics, advocated for raising the state's tax on cigarettes. Revenue from the hike should be used to fund public health efforts, he said.
“It has been well-studied that when you raise the tax, less people will smoke,” GiaQuinta said. “That money needs to go back into public health.”
The state is facing illnesses and health problems that threaten not only people but the state's economy, the forum speakers said.
Employees who are unhealthy sometimes can't work. Productivity declines if workers aren't doing their jobs, they said.
Brian Tabor, president of the Indiana Hospital Association, said health problems can drive up employers' costs to insure workers.
“It is a business issue,” he said.
The Alliance for a Healthier Indiana is composed of doctors, health care professionals, advocates and community and business leaders. It scheduled 17 forums around the state, with the first in Indianapolis in April.
Fort Wayne was the fifth forum, and another will be held today in Muncie. The tour wraps up Oct. 12 in Sellersburg.
Organizers described the town hall-style meetings as a way to begin and continue discussion about pressing public health issues across Indiana.
“Because we are committed to improving the health of all Hoosiers, we're taking our message on the road to build awareness and rally grassroots support for policy change at the Statehouse in 2019,” Bryan Mills, president and CEO of Community Health Network and Alliance chair, said in a statement.
Among the group's policy goals: raise the state's cigarette tax by $1.50 per pack. The move would net about $315 million, according to an estimate from the Alliance.
Smoking, the use of tobacco and the rise of e-cigarettes – electronic devices that do not use tobacco but include the addictive drug nicotine – drew much discussion Tuesday.
Katie Kincaid, data and research manager for the Indiana Youth Initiative, said 2016 research showed nearly 10 percent of mothers in Allen County smoked while pregnant. Nearly 15 percent of teens polled said they had used an e-cigarette within the past month, compared with 9 percent who reported using tobacco, she said.
Nancy Cripe of Tobacco Free Allen County said nicotine is a problem, regardless of how it's used. “Nicotine addiction is a real thing, and e-cigarettes are not helping,” she said. “Most (teens) have gotten the message that cigarettes are not good, but they continue to be intrigued by e-cigarettes.”