Bill Clinton Takes on Health Problems in Coachella Valley

December 5, 2012

President Clinton at the Health Matters Conference in January 2012. Photo: Clinton Foundation Press Office

By Suzanne Potter
California Health Report

A new health initiative run by former President Bill Clinton’s charitable foundation recently selected Southern California’s Coachella Valley as one of its sites, and local leaders in Coachella Valley will meet with the Clinton Health Matters Initiative staff to start planning tomorrow, December 6.

The new Clinton Health Matters Initiative (CHMI) aims to reduce suffering from preventable disease and close the gaps in health care access that are related to race, income and education.

The planning meeting, which will be held at Cal State San Bernardino’s Palm Desert campus, will bring CHMI staff together with local health care advocates and representatives from schools, businesses and non-profits. They will assess the valley’s needs and work out a blueprint for what can be accomplished over the next five to seven years.

“Our nation’s rising tide of preventable health problems is alarming because it is ruining the quality and length of life for millions and driving up healthcare costs in a way that can’t be sustained,” said former president Bill Clinton in a statement.

The Coachella Valley is about 50 miles long and comprises nine cities, from the wealthier towns like Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert and Indian Wells, to struggling areas like Desert Hot Springs, Indio and Coachella. The rural east end near the Salton Sea is home to thousands of desperately poor migrant field workers and their families

“We chose the CV because the resources are rich within the community and the commitment is rich, yet the disparities are great, said Ginny Erhlich, CEO of the CHMI. “More than 70 percent of children in the valley are living in poverty. And at the same time there are tremendous resources that can be leveraged and coalesced and built upon to really make a difference.”

The CHMI’s biggest event is a national conference held in each year in La Quinta, alongside the Humana Challenge Golf Tournament (formerly the Bob Hope Classic). Former President Clinton headlined the first annual conference this past January and is slated to appear on January 15th at the 2nd annual conference, entitled Health Matters: Activating Wellness in Every Generation.

The Health Assessment Resource Center (HARC) in Palm Desert will play a significant role in the initiative. HARC does an extensive survey every three years that explores dozens of health indicators; that data will inform the planning process.

Eileen Packer, Chief Executive Officer of HARC, is optimistic about the possibility of improving health in the region. “In order to change a community you need to have everyone involved,” she said. “I believe the Clinton Foundation will be a catalyst to get everybody working in the same direction.”

“Changes take time, she added. “Nothing happens overnight. The fact that they are committed to stay for a while will facilitate change.”

The CHMI’s partnerships are already producing results. At last year’s Health Matters Conference, the Desert Healthcare District (DHD) gave a $900,000 grant to the Alliance for a Healthier Generation (a spin-off of the Clinton Foundation) to bring the Healthy Schools program to all three local school districts.

The funds will support a full-time position, the Relationship Manager, for four years to work with every public school in the Coachella Valley, says Kathy Greco, CEO of the DHD.

That manager, Hayden Ross, will help to create an action plan to address students’ health issues. “Incrementally we really hope to see changes that create a healthier school environment,” Ross says.

The goals include offering healthier food choices, maintaining or improving PE classes and implementing staff wellness programs.

At Palm Springs Unified, they are going further, eliminating sports drinks, and limiting calories and portions of any foods sold at fundraisers on campus. They also offer a Junior Chef program and feature a fruit and vegetable a month in menus and in the newsletter.

In addition, the Humana Challenge is offering free tickets to kids’ day at the tournament for students who take part in the 9-0-2-1-5 program. Students must show they did one of five things for a week: get 9 hours a sleep a night, drink zero sugary beverages, exercise two hours a day, and/or eat five fruits and vegetables a day.

“Studies have shown that that the model has moved the needle around policies and programs as well as impacted positively students’ body mass index and healthy eating behaviors,” adds Ehrlich.

Wanda Grant, Director of Nutrition Services at PSUSD, is optimistic, “I think we’re on the tipping point here. We have a lot of interest in the valley and a lot of momentum. I think we’re just beginning to break the surface on making a difference with our families.”

One local nonprofit, Hidden Harvest out of Coachella, is featured prominently on the CHMI website. Hidden Harvest feeds about 45,000 families a month by collecting the produce left over after the harvest at local farms and packing houses – then giving it away to the poor.

The group’s founder, Christy Porter, will be writing a blog about Coachella Valley health issues. “Hidden Harvest and the CHMI are partners in the Coachella Valley – our mission overlaps as both of us are public health initiatives at our core, dedicated to our mission of making better health possible for our citizens,” Porter said.

Two of the valley’s major hospitals, Desert Regional Medical Center and Hospital, are getting involved as well. Their parent company, Tenet Healthcare is a title sponsor of the national conference in January.

The CHMI is also working with Verizon. The communications giant will offer wellness programs to its employees and will use their expertise to improve public health. Verizon is working to use video technology to offer “virtual” doctor’s visits to patients who can’t get to the physician’s office. In addition, they have a program that lets rural doctors send x-rays and EKG readings wirelessly to the hospital for analysis.

The CHMI is also building a website that uses crowdsourcing techniques to help people make a difference. For example, the site helps you organize a walking group or run a neighborhood watch program, to keep local parks are safe for kids to run around and play.

The Health Matters website emphasizes simple things people can do to improve their health and thus prevent disease, like eating better, exercising, drinking more water and getting more sleep. The initiative takes that a step further by enlisting companies to fund farmer’s markets, free exercise classes and programs to help people quit smoking.

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