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Our Opinion: Health rankings hide bitter secret

First, the good news: Last year, Minnesota was ranked the third healthiest state in the nation — and the No. 1 healthiest state for seniors — by America’s Health Rankings, a 20-year-old ranking system put out by United Health Foundation.

The bad news comes when you break down the numbers and realize that large segments of Minnesotans aren’t sharing in that good health: Notably American Indians, African Americans, those with non-traditional sexual preferences, and lower-income people in general.

Those “health inequities” have been highlighted in a new Minnesota Health Department report. Some examples:

Minnesota consistently ranks among the states with the lowest infant mortality rates. But that happy news doesn’t apply to African-American and American Indian infants, who suffer much higher mortality rates compared to all other population groups.

The causes of infant mortality vary by population, but native infants suffer mostly from sleep-related causes, such as sudden infant death syndrome.

Chronic stress, poverty, substance abuse, a lack of prenatal care, and lack of access to health care all contribute to infant mortality.

Becker County has not escaped the problem. The county, which last year ranked 77th out of the 86 Minnesota counties in health outcomes, has a population that is just 8 percent Native American.

Thirty percent of Becker County children live in single-parent homes, and the county’s child poverty rate is 20 percent, compared to 15 percent statewide.

The infant mortality rate in Becker County, at 932, is nearly twice the state average of 524.

The child mortality rate of 76 is more than a third again as high as the state average of 47.

And it’s not just infants and children — the mortality rate for American Indians in Minnesota is two to three times higher than that of whites, all the way up to age 65 and older, when the rate finally evens out.

Even among whites, family income makes a big difference in health outcomes.

Lower-income white ninth graders, for example, are much more likely to have weight problems than their wealthier peers (30 percent to 20 percent).

And those lower-income white ninth graders are more likely to have thought about suicide than higher-income students (18 percent to 10 percent).

Among adolescents, girls are much more likely to have thought about killing themselves than boys, and students of color are more likely to report both thinking about suicide and attempting suicide.

American Indian students have the highest rate of attempted suicide among ninth-graders, and the highest rate of death by suicide in Minnesota among all age groups.

Being incarcerated is associated with health problems, and American Indians are 13 times as likely to be incarcerated as whites in Minnesota. African Americans are ten times as likely.

The health department report calls for action, such as hiring more people with expertise working with communities of color and American Indians, and better engagement with those communities. That’s an excellent idea.

And since nothing exists in a vacuum, including health problems, the report recommends a broad spectrum of public investments in housing, transportation, education, economic opportunity and criminal justice.

When it comes to good health, there are two Minnesotas, and no one in the state should be satisified until both score in the top 10 in national health rankings.