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Report highlights north St. Louis' health-care ailments

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 22, 2009 - A report released Thursday says health conditions of residents of north St. Louis are generally worse than those of blacks in other major cities, and, in some cases, "mimic Third World indicators."

The report, funded by BJC HealthCare, grew out of efforts by Barnes-Jewish Hospital to expand its physical plant into land that was technically part of Forest Park. African-American members of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen saw that controversy as an opportunity to begin a dialogue with the hospital about health-care issues on the North Side.

“When aldermen first met with BJC, we talked about what we perceived as medical needs in our community,” said Alderman Terry Kennedy, D-18 Ward. “We talked about a trauma center or, in the very least, an emergency room because there was nothing like it in our community.”

But Kennedy said the two sides eventually agreed on an empirical study “so whatever we do won’t be based on anecdotal information. Out of that study, we now see that there’s a lot more needed than an emergency room. We need a full-service health center in north St. Louis. So, it’s good we did the study.”

The report’s findings were made public Thursday at a hearing by the Board of Aldermen’s health committee. It will review the findings and eventually make recommendations to the full board.

Still unclear from Kennedy’s comments and from the study itself is whether aldermen might eventually push for construction of a new hospital on the North Side to give residents more access to health services. That matter wasn’t tackled by the report, done by Research and Evaluation Solutions of Alexandria, Va. But the company’s owner, Laverne Morrow Carter, says there will be an ongoing effort to address what she says are urgent problems of health access and care of poor residents who live north of Delmar Boulevard. No full-service hospital exists in that area.

“The study shows that residents of the northern region of the city are not only doing worse than the city population as a whole but distinctly worse than the U.S. population of African Americans,” Carter says. “In some way, the health conditions on the North Side mimic Third World indicators.”

The study shows that in seven ZIP codes with large black populations, the life expectancy is lower and the death rates generally higher from homicide, suicide, heart disease, cancer and diabetes. The high rates are generally higher not only for the city as a whole but higher than black populations in other cities, the study found.

In the 5th Ward, for example, the life expectancy is 65.1 years, compared to a life expectancy of 73 years for residents of the city in general and 72.7 years for blacks nationally. Likewise, the rate of cancer among blacks in that ZIP code is 268.2 per 100,000, compared to 232.2 per 100,000 for city residents in general and 227.3 for blacks nationally.

Carter said the report also uncovered the shortage of mental health services for North Side residents.

“If you have a mental-health issue, you go to jail to get help,” Carter said. “These are men talking. That’s the way they said they could get mental-health services. There’s a huge gap between the services needed and what’s available.”

In general, the study was based on responses from 106 participants in focus groups. They documented many of the concerns of blacks in general about the absence of a full-service hospital on the North Side, the inadequacies of clinic care and complaints that the capacity of the few clinics that serve the residents are outstripped by the demand for services.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.