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How healthy are California's counties?

Read the full report and see how other counties did here

For years, local politicians, county health officials and health care professionals have been talking about making Sonoma County the healthiest county in the state by 2020, a goal that is at the heart of numerous local health, education and socio-economic initiatives.

In 2011, Sonoma County ranked 12th among 56 California counties surveyed in the first County Health Rankings by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It took three years for the county to break into the top 10, reaching eighth.

Last year, it reached sixth and this year, the county made it to No. 5. The rapid climb, from 12th to fifth in just six years, has some local officials confident the county can hit the No. 1 spot in three years.

Reductions in the number of uninsured residents, smoking abatement, open space improvements and numerous options for healthy lifestyles are among some of the things helping the county maintain its high ranking, said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane. But a number of metrics continue to plague Sonoma County, such as alcohol abuse and cannabis use among youth, she said.

“I think that if we can solve the affordable housing issue and address substance abuse, we’ll shoot up to No. 1,” Zane said.

Amanda Jovaag, rankings team director for the University of Wisconsin, which conducted survey in partnership with Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said the county’s performance continues to show improvements.

“You were doing well last year and you’re still doing well this year,” she said.

Jovaag said the county’s “real strengths” were its low rates of unemployment, childhood poverty and preventable hospital stays, a metric that indicates a high quality of health care. In addition, local residents have excellent access to exercise opportunities.

“Like many counties in the nation you saw a very big drop in the number of uninsured between 2013 and 2014,” she said.

Many of the metrics used in this year’s report, as well as previous ones, are based on older data. For example, the number of uninsured is based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s small area health insurance estimates of 2014.

The number of uninsured residents under 65 in Sonoma County dropped to 13 percent in 2014, down from 17 percent the preceding year, according to the report.

“Access to care improves the health of the community,” said Naomi Fuchs, CEO of Santa Rosa Community Health Centers. “Thirty thousand people who were previously uninsured in Sonoma County got health insurance. This means they got the care they needed and improved their health.”

The Health Action Council, a local network of health care providers, social services organizations and government agencies, has focused its efforts on improving three “pillars” of the county: health care, economic well-being and educational attainment, said Alena Wall, chairwoman of the council’s steering committee and executive director at the Center for Well-Being, a Santa Rosa nonprofit.

“At our last Health Action Council meeting, members expressed their support for prioritizing housing under our Economic Wellness pillar,” Wall said. “We are very committed to closing the health gap between our lowest-income residents and those with more opportunity.”

Unemployment, based on 2014 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, also showed improvement. The local unemployment rate dropped to 4.5 percent that year, from 5.6 percent the previous year.

Sonoma County ranked just ahead of Napa County, at No. 6, but was behind the top four counties of San Mateo, Marin, Santa Clara and Placer, respectively. Orange County, which was among the top five healthiest counties last year, dropped to No. 7 this year.

Mendocino County ranked 43rd and Lake County ranked 56th of the 57 counties in this year’s survey, ahead of only Modoc County.

The rankings show that 25 percent of Sonoma County’s residents face at least one of four housing problems: overcrowding, high costs, lack of a kitchen or plumbing.

Twenty percent of local residents reported binge or heavy drinking, compared to 18 percent for the state as a whole.

“We do have a really exceptional quality of life and that’s why people want to live here,” said Zane. “However, that makes the need to address affordable housing even more urgent, and I see we still have a lot of alcohol abuse. ... This is Wine Country.”

For more information, click here.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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