Ed Ehlinger, Minnesota Health Commissioner, left, walks with Cook Mayor Harold Johnston during a visit to Cook earlier this month to promote community investments in health.
COOK – Minnesota Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger considered the increase in Minnesota’s minimum wage the greatest public health achievement by the 2014 Legislature.
“We have to invest in things that make people healthy,” said Ehlinger. “And what is it that makes people healthy? Having an adequate income. Getting people out of poverty will do more for improving health than anything I could do as a clinician in a clinic. “
Studies show that moving people from the lowest quintile (earning $20,000 or less annually) to the next quintile (annual income of $20,000 to $30,000) added three years to their life expectancy, said Dr. Ehlinger.
Ehlinger was in Cook on Aug. 14 as part of a statewide tour to listen to citizens’ health concerns. He said communities which invest in walkways, bikeways or other health-minded initiatives, are the key to creating healthier Minnesotans.
Mental health is a primary concern in the region, he said. “I heard in spades over and over again in this part of the country about the mental health issues that are there.”
Communities can help by eliminating some of the stress that can lead to mental illness by providing jobs, child care or housing for people, he said.
The Minnesota Department of Health is assisting communities through SHIP (Statewide Health Improvement Program), providing support for a variety of programs. SHIP helped Wadena provide healthier eating choices for seniors in Wadena and aided Rochester with a program aimed at helping families avoid second-hand smoke.
SHIP is also assisting locally with efforts to make more students at the North Wood School more active and help Cook encourage more walking and biking.
SHIP Coordinator Diane Torrel and Cook City Councilor Elizabeth Storm both talked about the Cook Active Transportation Committee’s efforts. Torrel said creating a safer way for pedestrians to cross Highway 53 was a priority. Torrel noted that a sign notifying drivers of their speed as they entered Cook had been up for three weeks and a permanent sign would be installed once work is completed on the four-lane expansion project just outside of Cook.
Storm touched on the importance of remaining active. “Sitting is the new smoking,” she said, urging people to get out and walk or bike.
Also speaking at the program was Cook Hospital Administrator Al Vogt, who noted that the hospital puts on a health fair every two years and works in concert with other organizations to promote healthy living.
Don Potter talked about the role of the Lake Vermilion Fire Brigade in protecting homes and providing emergency services.
“To call the Brigade unique is an understatement,” said Potter, who had brought an airboat used by the organization during the shoulder seasons to the event at the park. “It would be a challenge to go anywhere in the state, let alone the entire United States, to find a parallel to what the Brigade has become and its potential in the future.”
Potter also praised the collaboration from health and other public agencies as well as volunteers for making the Lake Vermilion Fire Brigade a success.
Following the program, people were invited to snack on healthy foods such as fresh grapes and granola bars while they waited for their opportunity for a one-on-one session with Dr. Ehlinger.
Ehlinger heard their health concerns as they strolled around the block, dubbed the Moose Loop and decorated with moose tracks. The issues ranged from more biking trails to concerns about keeping enough trained emergency medical technicians to respond to emergency calls.
Ehlinger said he hopes to use the comments he receives on his tour to help shape legislative goals for 2015 and beyond.
“Public health is not partisan,” he said during his presentation in the park. “The issues that we deal with every day are not Republican or Democratic issues. They’re human issues.”