Deal: State must address child obesity problem

Gov. Nathan Deal told public health officials Wednesday that the state must respond aggressively to the problem of childhood obesity in Georgia.

Deal, addressing more than 400 public health officials at a Georgia Public Health Association conference, said that lifestyle and dietary habits are contributing to obesity. He said that schools may have to change their lunch programs to help solve the problem.

Georgia has the second-highest rate of obese and overweight children in the nation. The state lags on other health statistics, such as infant mortality and cardiovascular health.

The state’s public health has declined over the past 10 years, Deal said, noting the state’s drop in health rankings among states.

The governor also said government’s role in addressing health problems has increased. ‘’Health care is one of those issues that won’t go away,’’ Deal said. As health care costs rise, the demand that government be part of the solution will likely accelerate, he said.

“You are the front lines,’’ Deal told the public health officials. ‘’We’re going to have to find better, more efficient and less costly delivery mechanisms’’ for basic and preventive health care.

The new director of Public Health, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, spoke about the breadth of public health activities, from screening newborns to testing food safety to dealing with disease outbreaks. “Public Health protects life,’’ she said.

But Public Health has also seen large budget cuts, Fitzgerald noted. The state spends less than one-quarter of the money that Alabama spends on public health, she said. Meanwhile, Georgia has about 1,000 job vacancies in public health, she said, including nurses, environmentalists and lab techs.

Fitzgerald said later in an interview that she sees four target areas to improve the state’s health ranking: obesity, infant mortality, smoking cessation and raising the state’s immunization rates. “It’s going to take a significant effort on the part of Georgians, ‘’ she said.

Educating parents will be one strategy in dealing with these problems, she said.

Fitzgerald is in line to become the first commissioner of a new Department of Public Health, a stand-alone agency created this year under House Bill 214, which passed the General Assembly and is awaiting Deal’s signature. Currently Public Health is part of the Department of Community Health, which runs Medicaid, PeachCare and the state employees’ health plan.

The Public Health Association honored state Rep. Mickey Channell (R-Greensboro) for his work in helping pass the bill.

The new agency will report directly to the governor as a Cabinet-level department, with the goal of raising visibility and increasing transparency.

For more than 30 years, Channell told the health officials, Public Health ‘’has been buried in various large state agencies.’’

Channell likened the passage of Bill 214 to a ‘’jailbreak.’’

“We finally got it done,’’ he said.