Louisiana officials learned today that the state continues to trail other states in overall health status. The news comes from the United Health Foundation in its 15th annual “America’s Health: State Health Rankings.” But, despite the low ranking, the report outlines progress made by the state in providing access to adequate prenatal care.

According to Dr. Fred Cerise, secretary of the Department of Health and Hospitals, his agency embraces the United Health report and uses it as a way to benchmark important indicators to see what works in other states.

“Through the Governor’s Health Care Reform Panel, our goal is certainly to improve our rankings. But, much more important than rankings are using reports such as this to learn from the successes of other states, and put those best practices to work here,” Cerise said. “We must also be realistic about our expectations for improvement since many of these health measures are the result of years and years of poor health practices.”

Some of Louisiana’s progress in prenatal care, where the state improved from 67 percent of expectant mothers getting adequate prenatal care to 79.2 percent, can be attributed to the LaMOMS program that began in 2003. Medicaid and LaMOMS covered a total of 53,701 pregnant women in 2003, an increase of more than 4,000 women who received pregnancy-related health coverage prior to LaMOMS.

In addition to highlighting Louisiana’s improvement in prenatal care, the United Health report noted Louisiana slightly improved its cancer death rate, moving from 224.8 to 224.2 deaths per 100,000 people, and it decreased its infant mortality rate from 11.8 to 9.7 deaths per 1,000 live births. Both of these improvements, though, are less than the national average.

Louisiana’s obesity rate also was shown to have more than doubled from 12.3 percent to 24.8 percent. Dr. Fred Cerise said the high rate of obesity plays a significant role in other poor health outcomes.

“Personal behaviors such as obesity and high tobacco use contributed significantly to Louisiana’s poor overall ranking,” said Dr. Cerise. “Then, these poor individual choices result in more cancer and cardiovascular deaths, as well as total mortality and premature deaths.”

Dr. Reed Tuckson, vice president of United Health Foundation, said Louisiana and its public and elected officials have taken impressive steps to mobilize the state to address these issues in an urgent and exemplary manner.

 “I have had the honor of working directly with Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Dr. Fred Cerise to assist them as they tackle health problems that are historical in nature,” Tuckson said. “The leadership of the state is very concerned about improving its health status, and the work they have undertaken serves as a model for mobilizing resources to improve health outcomes.”

Tuckson also said people should not focus on the individual rankings of a particular state, but look deeper to see if improvements are being made.

“If you compare Louisiana today to where it was in 1990, it is clear that progress has been made in almost all categories,” he explained. “The report is subtitled ‘a call to action,’ so it is important that all citizens and community leaders continue to do their part to positively impact the health of Louisiana.”

Cerise agreed with the conclusion reached by United Health that the nation as a whole still has a lot of work to do in improving risk factors that result in death.

“Not only is that the case nationwide, it is clearly the case in Louisiana,” he said. “This report affirms the need in Louisiana to make improvements, and it affirms why Gov. Blanco has made improving health care a key focus of her administration.”

Data used to compile the United Health report comes from multiple sources and is sometimes several years old. Therefore, programs recently implemented by the state (such as CommunityCARE and Lighten Up Louisiana) that may positively impact the health status of the state are not immediately reflected in this year’s edition of the report.