An in-depth survey shows that health in the Palm Springs area has gotten significantly worse across a wide range of indicators in the past few years, despite the economic recovery.
The non-profit Health Assessment Resource Center (HARC) recently released its third tri-annual report, based on data collected through an extensive landline and cell phone survey of people living the Coachella Valley (CV).
This latest report allows researchers to compare data collected in 2007, 2010, and now 2013. Government agencies use the data to evaluate their programs’ effectiveness and decide which programs to fund.
The assessment’s 2013 data show some disturbing trends. Perhaps the most shocking number is this: 79 percent. That’s the percentage of households with children in the Coachella Valley making less than 250 percent of the federal poverty level. That means almost 4 out of 5 children in the CV are officially considered “poor” and likely qualify for federal or state assistance.
HARC Board President Dr. Glenn Grayman said the situation is getting worse. Take, for example, the data on very low-income families with children. The study showed that in 2007, 28.2 percent of families with kids only made 100 percent of the federal poverty level. In 2010 that number was 32.8 percent, and in 2013 it shot up to 48.7 percent.
Bottom line: almost half of the Coachella Valley’s children are living in extreme poverty, in the shadow of some of the wealthiest communities in the nation. Grayman said, “Most economists will tell us the recession ended in 2010… Income disparities are increasing. The poor are getting poorer, the rich getting richer, and the hollowing out of the middle class. Is this a manifestation of that?”
Decades of research have shown that poverty is directly correlated with lack of medical insurance and overall poorer health outcomes. The 2013 HARC survey showed that the percentage of CV adults 18-54 without health care coverage is rising fast.
In 2007, the depth of the recession, the HARC survey showed 22.5 percent uninsured. In 2010 as recession was ending, that number rose to 28.6 percent. And in 2013 kept on rising – and hit 33.6 percent. Grayman said, “There are some national trends in that direction but that’s about a 50 percent relative increase in uninsured adults. It’s not entirely clear why that is such a radical change in the Coachella Valley.”
Grayman suggested that this would be a golden opportunity for medical researchers to delve into the reasons behind the results, and provide some real answers as to why the economic turnaround hasn’t produced better health outcomes in the CV.
The survey also has implications for air quality. It showed that the percentage of adults diagnosed with a respiratory disease other than asthma has almost tripled since 2007.
Nationally chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is trending down because fewer people are smoking. Grayman wondered if, “There may be local pollutants, allergens and dust, possibly related to the drying up of the Salton Sea for example, which are leading to increased respiratory distress and cough.”
The study showed that the percentage of Coachella Valley adults ever having been diagnosed with cancer has gone from 9.6 percent in 2007 to 13.8 percent in 2013. Grayman said that nationally cancer prevalence is increasing, but not that quickly. The data show that the CV has a better-than-average rate of screening for many cancers, which may contribute to the extra diagnoses.
One area where the screening has decreased, however, is in pap smears. The survey showed that the percentage of women who have not had a pap in the past 5 years went from 17.2 percent in 2007 to 20.4 percent in 2013. Grayman attributes this partially to the fact that the government issued new guidelines that told women they don’t have to get pap smears as often. But, he said, the other part may simply be that as women have lost health insurance coverage, they’ve been forgoing screening tests like the pap.
The percentage of CV adults diagnosed with bone disease (including osteoporosis) went up by about half in the past six years. Grayman theorizes that this may be due to the aging of the population, but thinks that the barrage of TV commercials for osteoporosis drugs may influence more people to get tested and treated.
The results show that 30 percent of CV adults who drink at all, admit to binge drinking. Four percent admit to drunk driving in the past month. Since people tend to underreport their own bad behavior in surveys, these numbers are thought to be low. The CV is a vacation destination, which could increase the amount of drinking in general. But the area has been popular with tourists and snowbirds for decades, so this does not explain the recent increase, or why people in the CV are about 10 percent more likely to drink alcohol compared to other people in the state.
The survey showed 8.3% of the adults in the CV are currently using marijuana for what they consider to be a medical purpose. As the household income drops, the use of medical marijuana among adults in that household increases markedly. Among families that make $75,000 a year, only 1 person in 20 uses medical marijuana. But with people who make less than $25,000, one in six use medical marijuana.
Seniors in the CV
There is some good news: the survey reports that just 15.7% of CV seniors are living in a household making at or less than 250% of federal poverty level. On the flip side, data show that in 2013 81.8% of seniors are doing ok financially – living at or above 300% of federal poverty level.
The data on elder abuse, however is troubling, since in 2007 the survey shows that 2.9 percent of CV seniors have experienced physical or financial elder abuse in the past year. By 2013 it jumped by a third to 4 percent, which is too high but still better than the national average – 10 percent of seniors report being abused.
Mental Health in Children
The report also looked at the percentage of kids 3-17 who have seen a doctor for mental health issues in the last year. Researchers found that the numbers jumped 300 percent in just three years, from 4 percent in 2010 to 12.3 percent in 2013. Grayman says there is an increasing national acceptance that mental illness is a valid problem for children and he credits the mental health advocacy work of the CV Health Collaborative.
HARC invites nonprofits, journalists, students, government agencies, etc. to make further use of this data. As such, they’ve put together a tool called HARC search, which lets people run specific reports: for example, a report singling out women and smoking, or teens and sexuality.
Pamela Gabourie, of Planned Parenthood, the HARC’s approach is unique, “I have a wide range of teen pregnancy statistics to look at. But none of these sources were able to tell me that more than half of parents and guardians in the CV have talked to their kids about sexual issues or pregnancy.”
She added, “It lets us know that our work is not only necessary but that we have a lot of work to do. It’s clear for us that HARC data tells the story of how together we can and we will change people’s lives.”
The full report is now available on their website.