National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

 Counties honored for 'Culture of Health'

​By Charles Taylor


CultureofHealth.jpgPhoto courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Dr. Veronica Ray consults with a patient at Lincoln Community Health Center in Durham, N.C. A federally qualified health center, Lincoln receives funding from Durham County and sees some 40,000 patients a year, 80 percent of them uninsured.

Two hundred twenty-four miles separate Buncombe and Durham counties along Interstate 40 in North Carolina. But they couldn’t be closer when it comes to their priorities to improve the health of their communities — and now they’re receiving recognition for it.​​​​​​​​​

Bullet Learn more about the winners and apply for next year's prizes

The counties, along with Spokane County, Wash., are among six communities nationwide to receive a RWJF Culture of Health Prize from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The honor brings with it a no-strings-attached $25,000 award to each of the winners, who were announced at the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen (Pitkin County), Colo. on June 25.

Recognizing all three counties’ accomplishments, NACo President Linda Langston, supervisor, Linn County, Iowa, said: “Counties play a vital role in the health and well-being of their residents, and local communities like these are fostering comprehensive, long-lasting approaches to healthier living.”

Collaboration was a common theme in all of the winning communities. In profiles (available online), RWJF described their efforts.

Buncombe County, N.C. (pop. 238,300)

In 2013, Buncombe County Health and Human Services convened the Public Health Advisory Council. Its members include an array of community stakeholders, such as the YMCA of Western North Carolina, the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, health care professionals, transportation experts and environmental organizations, among others. 

The council has led and supported a number of initiatives, including the Innovative Approaches project, which brings pediatricians, parents and support agencies together to improve quality of care for children with special health care needs.

“With the support of the county commissioners and county government,” she said, “my staff are the ones that have been facilitating the process of pulling the community together around these priorities and really helping us focus and hone and leverage the work that we’re doing in our community to try to really make a difference.”

Durham County, N.C. (pop. 267,600)

Through a program called Project Access of Durham County, more than 700 health care providers have volunteered their time to serve more 4,300 patients through a network of clinics and private providers, laboratories, pharmacies and hospitals over the past four years.

Gayle Harris, Durham County health director, said the County Board has committed $400,000 for staffing and infrastructure to Project Access, which provides the care at the county’s federally qualified health center, Lincoln Community Health Center.

RWJF also highlighted positive outcomes of the county’s community health needs assessment. It found that many Durham County residents prefer to exercise close to home. As a result, two marked “Healthy Mile Trails” were created to provide exercise opportunities in underserved communities, and others are in the works.

For Harris, who’s been with the health department for more than 40 years, the recognition couldn’t come at a better time.

“I think that the synergy that’s there, in next 10 years I think you’ll see some amazing things,” she said. Recently the city of Durham, the county and the board of education launched an initiative to reduce poverty in the community’s most distressed neighborhoods — “one neighborhood at a time,” she added. “It’s really going to be a wonderful process to be a part of.”

Spokane County, Wash. (pop. 471,200)

In Spokane County, community partners have recognized the impact that education can have on long-term health, according to County Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn, and are expanding educational opportunities to empower young people.

She serves on the board of Priority Spokane and the county’s regional health district. “We came together and surveyed our community and created task forces around environment, education, transportation, health, economic vitality and pulled in community members,” she said. Every task force unanimously agreed that a focus on educational attainment would “move the needle” in all of those areas.

“We have data, and a good part of it is data that came from Spokane regional health district that clearly shows that education is linked to health,” she said, noting that one data point showed that people with less than a high school education have twice as much cardiovascular disease as those who have graduated from college.

School-focused initiatives in the county include skill-building training sessions for young students, an early-warning system to monitor student attendance and grades, and targeted dropout-prevention programs designed to be supportive rather than punitive.

These programs appear to be working. In 2006, the overall high school graduation rate for Spokane County rate was 72.9 percent. By 2013, the rate was 81 percent.

Gibbie was quick to share the spotlight with the folks back home, echoing her co-winners sentiments. “We have had the honor and the pleasure of attending this conference and representing our community,” she said. “But it is the work of county government and all of our community partners that is really making this possible, and they should receive full credit for the work that’s being done that made this possible.”​