State health report card a mixed bag

Given that there are 50 states, a health ranking of 36th isn’t much to brag about.

Yet Georgia’s overall ranking on health measures such as patterns of behavior, government health policies, and clinical care did jump seven spots in 2010, from 43rd the previous year.

The annual rankings, released Tuesday, are compiled by the United Health Foundation, a nonprofit arm of the health insurer UnitedHealthcare. ‘’America’s Health Rankings’’ is billed as the longest-running annual assessment of the nation’s health on a state-by-state basis.

The data on Georgia show there’s still much work to do.

“Certainly any improvement is good news,’’ said Russ Toal, a professor of health policy and management at Georgia Southern University. But he noted that Georgia still lags far behind on important measures such as infectious disease (47th), infant mortality (41st), cardiovascular deaths (40th) and rate of uninsured residents (44th).

Toal also pointed out that small statistical improvements in some measures, such as the number of self-reported poor physical health days and poor mental health days, made Georgia leapfrog many other states on those measures.

Georgia’s strengths, the report says, include a low prevalence of binge drinking. But its weaknesses include a low high school graduation rate. The state showed improvement in its violent crime rate and the prevalence of smoking.

Yet Georgia also has seen a steady rise in the percentage of children in poverty and in the rate of obesity, the report found. Since 1990, the prevalence of obesity rose from 10.8 percent to 27.7 percent of the Georgia population.

Ken Thorpe, an Emory University health policy expert, noted that Georgia’s overall ranking “is still way below average,” and that the state did not improve in many categories that are important indicators of health. Georgia’s improved ranking on some measures may simply reflect a  poorer performance by other states, he said.

About 75 percent of health care spending is linked to chronically diseased patients, Thorpe said. “Much of that [cost] is obesity,” he noted. Georgia’s obesity rating is virtually the same in 2010 as it was in 2009, he said.

The health rankings appear at a time when lawmakers and public health officials in Georgia are seeking more resources for public health services, citing recent cutbacks in funding. And a state commission has called for public health to be a stand-alone agency for greater clout and transparency, among other reasons.

Georgia fell from 27th to 37th in public health funding, Toal noted. “The rankings make the case that Georgia needs to do more, not less,’’ added Toal, who is immediate past president of the Georgia Public Health Association.

Some of the year-to-year improvement could be linked to the use of more measures in the 2010 rankings, and the change in methodologies for determining some rates, said Phaedra Corso, head of the Department of Health Policy and Management in the College of Public Health at University of Georgia.

Those changes could make it difficult to compare 2010 with 2009, Corso said.