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Why is Louisiana unhealthy? New state database aims to connect environment, behavior to health



MONROE, La. – After a year in which the coronavirus laid bare health disparities among people of different backgrounds, the Louisiana Department of Health released a new dashboard that aims to shed light on the state’s dismal health care outcomes.

For years, Louisiana has sat at or near the bottom of nearly every measurable health metric, ranking well below the national average when it comes to behavioral health, low birth weight, high cholesterol and early death. What is less understood is why residents in the state have such poor health.

“Everyone in Louisiana deserves to lead a full, happy life,” the website’s opening page says in bold letters. But the dozens of graphs that follow, pulled from state and federal data, show that residents in the state have varying access to the building blocks for a healthy life, such as early education, good nutrition and prenatal care.

In St. Charles Parish, almost 60% of the population lives more than a mile from a grocery store compared to just 15% in nearby Orleans Parish. Jefferson and Bossier parishes are the fast food capitals of the state, with nearly one fast-food restaurant per 1,000 people — about nine times the amount in Cameron Parish.

What’s more, rural residents and people of color have some of the worst chances of having access to key services that impact health.

For example, preschool enrollment is at about 63.3% on average across the state for three and four-year-olds. But in rural areas like Tensas Parish, which borders Mississippi in the northeastern part of the state and is the least-populated parish, only 24.8% of kids are enrolled compared to 77.5% of kids in Orleans Parish.

About 69% of Black women and 61% of Hispanic women in the state have prenatal care that starts in the first trimester compared to 82% of White women.

“This report really makes clear the disparities that exist, not only among health outcomes, but among factors that influence health,” said Katherine Cain, who directs the Louisiana Department of Health’s Bureau of Planning and Performance, noting that outcomes can be broken down by income, race, region or education level. “It really is quite painful to see the stark differences that exist in many cases between different demographic groups.”

Earl Benjamin-Robinson, director of the state’s Office of Health Equity, noted that health outcomes are related to the environment where people live, “and there are educational opportunities that contribute to that.”