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Eau Claire County scores above average in health rankings

With a high number of health care options, low unemployment and a low number of uninsured residents, Eau Claire County ranks 33rd overall out of Wisconsin’s 72 counties on a new health study.

The County Health Rankings, compiled by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, look at a variety of factors, from environment to job opportunities to recreational options to nearby medical services. Nearly all of the counties in west-central Wisconsin ranked in the top half of the list.

Lieske Giese, Eau Claire city-county public health director, said she likes how the study looks at numerous factors in compiling the report.

“Being healthy is caused by a lot of different factors; it’s not just if you don’t smoke or don’t eat well,” Giese said. “We know we have some challenges and significant issues.”

The county climbed two spots from its 35th-place finish last year.

“I always hesitate to say we improved,” she said. “We’re staying fairly consistent. There is room for improvement, and the positive is we have a community willing to work on that and wanting to make a change.”

There were several areas where the county did well.

“Our county has a high ratio of health care, mental health and dental providers per person,” Giese noted. “These providers do often provide services to individuals who aren’t Eau Claire County residents.”

Other medical data shows Eau Claire County is doing above average. For instance, the teen birth rate in Eau Claire County is lower than the rest of the state, although it is triple the rate for Hispanic and black teens than their white counterparts.

The county also has positive screening rates for breast cancer and flu vaccinations, which is an indication of strong healthcare, she said.

Eau Claire County also scored well for its low unemployment rate and the number of adults who are college-educated, she added.

There are areas for improvement, particularly the increase in premature deaths, many caused by drug overdoses, suicides and alcohol-related driving deaths, she said.

“Eau Claire County ranks 69th out of 72 counties for preventable hospital stays,” she said. “This trend is getting worse for our county. This may represent a tendency of patients to overuse hospitals as a main source of care, rather than their primary clinical care for things like asthma and diabetes.”

Another area of concern is the high number of sexually-transmitted infections.

An economic factor that concerned Giese is the county came in 67th in income inequality.

“This means a wide gap between those most affluent and least affluent exists in our community,” she said. “The study has shown that gap alone causes challenges.”

Another financial number that concerned Giese is that 13 percent of county residents have a “severe housing burden,” where they spend 50 percent or more of their household incomes on housing.

St. Croix County ranked third in the state and best in west-central Wisconsin. Kelli Engen, the county’s public health officer, said the county historically is in the top 10, so while she was happy with the high finish, she wasn’t surprised either.

“We have a lot of health systems involved in healthy programming,” Engen said. “It’s just one set of measures.”

Engen said she likes the rankings because the study looks at so many categories.

“Education, income, housing — all of those things matter to our health,” Engen said.

St. Croix County scored well because of its excellent high school graduation ranks, the low number of children living in poverty, and low unemployment.

“Where you live, work and play matters,” she said.

Like Giese, Engen said she was studies areas where they need to improve. She noted that her county also has too many cases of sexually-transmitted infections.

To see the complete ranking list, visit countyhealthrankings.org


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State organization develops strategies to meet workforce needs

A workforce consultant believes 50 percent of the jobs available require more than a high school degree and less than a college degree.

“We’re missing out on the skills thing,” Ted Abernathy, managing partner of Economic Leadership, said Tuesday in Eau Claire.

Companies are looking for employees with personal and people skills and the ability to think and solve problems. They also need people with technical skills “but most companies will do that training,” Abernathy said.

Abernathy was in Eau Claire to help the WMC Foundation unveil its Future Wisconsin Project, which addresses the state’s lack of workers.

Future Wisconsin Project developed a study to determine the best path forward to get more Wisconsinites into the workforce.

“Wisconsin has a math problem,” said Kurt Bauer, chief executive officer of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.

“Our state’s population growth is stagnant, and that serves as a direct impediment to job growth and a strong economic future,” he said.

The report focused on six areas:

• Attracting and retaining talent.

• Providing more skills for existing workers.

• Improving career pathways.

• Promoting apprenticeships, youth apprenticeships, internships and other work-based learning for students.

• Promoting career awareness.

• Reaching disconnected groups.

Abernathy said the first three of the above areas are the most important.

Attracting and retaining talent can be done by increasing state funding for talent attraction, crafting a talent incentive program, continuing the focus on hiring veterans and welcoming diversity, he said.

Incentives such as tax credits and housing vouchers can also bring more people into the state, Abernathy said.

“This whole idea of talent incentives has become a big deal,” he said.

Wisconsin has already done a good job with apprenticeships, Abernathy said.

“That’s part of your DNA here,” he said.

While some Wisconsin communities have done a better job than others in attracting skilled workers, people around the state have to work together, Abernathy said.

“It’s got to be relevant. Everybody has a point of view,” he said.

Wade Goodsell, executive director of the WMC Foundation, agrees.

“We’re trying to get all the voices on the table,” he said.

The need for talent will never go away, Abernathy said.

“No matter how many robots you get, you are still going to need good people,” he said.

Bauer echoes Abernathy’s comments.

“We need a robust marketing campaign that brings more people into Wisconsin and we need to be a national leader when it comes to apprenticeships, internships and training opportunities for current and future workers,” he said.