During a recent town hall meeting, I introduced two new county health and human service leaders to members of the community gathered at Annapolis High School. That evening, I also shared a personal story about something that many of us take for granted sometimes – until something happens. I’m talking about health and well-being. That’s what I care about most. I believe that’s what government should care about most.
My wake-up call came during a family emergency. I was driving my son to urgent care after learning that his acute stomach pain might require surgery. He was screaming in pain, and I was trying to remain calm, as my mind ticked off the boxes I’d need covered in a fight for his life.
Thank goodness my son turned out to be fine. But I will never forget that day. We all experience difficult and unforeseen circumstances at some point during our lives. Far too many people are coping with chronic illnesses that never go away. For some of us, childhood traumas alter our lives forever. Well-being, or the lack of it, affects virtually everything: where we live, how we eat, whether we play, and what help we access when we need it the most.
The latest term referring to the universe of underlying issues that affect health and well-being is “social determinants.”
With the appointments of Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman as the county health officer and Kai Boggess-deBruin, Ph.D., as the new deputy chief administrative officer for health and human services, we are signaling a fundamental shift in how we approach wellness.
We are rebooting the county’s dashboard that traditionally has measured our progress more narrowly in terms of data on housing starts, retail sales and building permits issued, for example.
But what about the overall health of our population, housing affordability, access to public beaches, fresh fruits and vegetables, preserving leafy forests and green open spaces, and maintaining a healthy Chesapeake Bay? Think about what it will mean if the goals of our policy decisions are aimed at improving the health and well-being of county residents while also preserving the natural environment in which we live.
The field of medicine widely accepts the conclusion that 80% of health outcomes have nothing to do with medical treatment. So in Anne Arundel County, we will instead evaluate the effectiveness of our policies in terms of health outcomes and not solely by wealth.
I can’t take credit for the idea. It’s actually the focus of a lot of research and experimentation. New Zealand calls it well-being and organized its national budget around the concept.
Our Healthy Communities Transition Team recommended that every piece of legislation before the Anne Arundel County Council should include a health impact statement alongside the currently required fiscal impact statement. We are working to make that happen.
In the 10 months since I’ve taken office, we have accomplished many good things. We increased staffing to better address mental health issues in schools. We funded unmet education and public safety needs. We shifted the General Development Plan to a process that is community driven rather than developer driven. I signed legislation banning Styrofoam, and we’ve hired more inspectors to monitor erosion and sediment control. Also, our county departments are partnering with the federal government to improve the quality and nutrition of foods offered in low-income communities.
We are making a good-faith effort to help people feel better, live better and do better. I believe that’s a core responsibility of government. We will not stop paying attention to the economy or the financial health of the county - that would be foolish and fiscally irresponsible. We’ll keep an eye on the bottom line while continuing to pay our bills like we do at home. My administration will focus everyday on how best to improve the daily lives of our people. It’s a tall order, yes, but we will prove that government policies can be compassionate and comprehensive at the same time.