SKOWHEGAN — A forum aimed at improving the health of Somerset County residents drew a large crowd to the Skowhegan Federated Church Monday morning, sparked by a study that lists the county as the least healthy in Maine.

The forum, organized by the Greater Somerset Public Health Collaborative, addressed the 2015 County Health Rankings, which were released in March by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a non-profit group that focuses on community health issues.

The study ranks Somerset County last among the 16 counties in Maine for health outcomes and the current health of residents and second-to-last for health factors, information that can impact health outcomes in the future.

“I don’t think people should necessarily be alarmed, but it should spur people to take action as to how we can improve the health of people in Somerset County,” said Matt L’Italien, assistant project director for the Greater Somerset Public Health Collaborative.

Adults in Somerset County smoke more and are more likely to be obese than adults in other parts of the state, according to the rankings. Twenty-seven percent of children live in poverty, compared to the state-wide average of 18 percent, and only 55 percent of adults have received post-secondary education compared to the state-wide average of 63 percent.

All of those things are factors that contributed to the county’s low standings in comparison to the rest of the state, said Tim Cowan, keynote speaker at the event and the director of the Health Index Initiative at MaineHealth, a Portland-based nonprofit group that includes a network of healthcare providers across the state.

“The purpose of this data is to understand it so we can take action,” Cowan told an audience of about 90 people, including representatives from town and local governments, health care employees, school officials and employees and law enforcement.

This is the first year the health collaborative has hosted a forum, and the planning was motivated by the low rankings, L’Italien said.

“Yes, the last place ranking did push us to have this forum, more importantly the fact that we went from a higher ranking to a lower ranking,” he said.

In 2014, the county ranked 15th in health outcomes, followed by Piscataquis.

Some attendees at the forum said they were not surprised at the low rankings, citing poverty and the rural landscape as contributors to poor health.

“Somerset County has high poverty, and with poverty comes many of the problems we talked about today,” said Bill Pullen, assistant superintendent in Skowhegan-based School Administrative District 54.

“We have great services in Somerset County, but getting those services out can be difficult because it’s so rural,” said Emma Vaillancourt, tobacco and substance abuse prevention coordinator for the Greater Somerset Public Health Collaborative. According to the rankings, 26 percent of adults are smokers in Somerset County, while the state-wide average is 19 percent.

Vaillancourt, who works on efforts to reduce teen smoking, said those numbers are low, even though the number of adult smokers in Somerset County is “very high.”

The rankings do not include data on teen smoking. Another challenge to public health is that many efforts are funded by grants, and there is not consistent funding available, she said.

Over the course of the morning, Cowan reviewed the data with the group, who then split into small groups to discuss ways to improve health outcomes in Somerset County.

They answered questions such as “Who else needs to be brought into this conversation?,” “How can we engage community stakeholders?” and “What is the next action step we need to take?”

“We could all leave here rather depressed and feel like we can’t go anywhere, but I think you guys are in a good position to do something,” Cowan said. He told the group to look at the data as a tool directing them where to go and what problems to focus on and to work together. At the end of the forum, attendees were asked to provide contact information so they can continue to be part of the process moving forward.

There are no discussions or events planned in the immediate future, but L’Italien said it is something the group will be working on over the next few months.

“The next part of the process is to continue to discuss that data, identify our health needs and prioritize them and then identify what assets we have, what needs do we have, what gaps are there that we’re not reaching,” he said. “It’s going to involve listening to more people in our county to learn what their needs are and what their perceived needs are.”

There is also an ongoing statewide effort to address the health status of Maine residents, the Maine Shared Health Needs Assessment and Planning Process, that is working around the state on health improvement plans.

“It’s great that so many partners came out today,” Vaillancourt said. “We can’t do it all by ourselves. We need people to help deliver the message.”

“I think it’s a great step in collaboration and getting to know what different organizations we can plug into,” said Cheryl Curtis, an AmeriCorps volunteer who also works with the Greater Somerset Public Health Collaborative.

The County Health Rankings are based on a yearly survey called the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Study that is compiled from a random sampling of residents in each state.

“It isn’t the be-all end-all. There are a lot of things going well in this county that we should celebrate as well, but it’s just a way to start a conversation on how we can work together to improve those factors that are causing us to score low as a county,” L’Italien said.

In addition to the health outcomes ranking, the study also includes a “health factors” ranking, which looks at information that can have an impact on health outcomes in the future. Somerset County ranked 15th out of Maine’s 16 counties in that category, ahead of only Washington County.

Sagadahoc County received the highest ranking in health outcomes while Cumberland County ranked highest in health factors.

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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