Challenge For a Healthier Louisiana funds driving a movement toward real change, Reeves says…

By Tina Dirmann
staff writer for BCBS of Louisiana Foundation

Christy Reeves, executive director for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation
Christy Reeves, executive director for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation

Earlier this year, the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation launched Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana, a multi-million dollar grant program designed to motivate communities across Louisiana to take on the state’s health crisis. It was a bold move designed to halt the state’s slide to the bottom in national studies on health and fitness.

In Louisiana today, more than 60% of the adult population is considered obese (and 30% of kids are following along). And with skyrocketing obesity comes companion issues, like soaring blood pressure numbers and diabetes rates.

Recently, the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge released a state report card, meant to measure the overall health and physical activity of Louisiana’s youth. A series of D’s and F’s filled the report card, for the fifth year in a row.

Determined to find new solutions, BCBSLAF put out a call to arms to city officials and leading non-profits, challenging them to come up with hands-on plans for change, the kind daring enough to actually turn the tide on Louisiana’s dismal health grades. In the end, the foundation and their partner organizations (12 plans involving 500 agencies across the state) pledged $27 million toward making a difference. Pennington Biomedical Research Center, renowned for its studies on health and nutrition, will oversee the implementation and effectiveness of each plan.

We spoke to BCBSLA Foundation Executive Director Christy Reeves, who has been deeply involved in the creation and launch of the movement, about this innovative program, and the master plan to “move the needle,” as she likes to say, on health and fitness across the state.

Q:         You use that term a lot, “move the needle,” when it comes to raising health and fitness standards in the state. What do you mean by that?

A:         I mean, how do we make a difference. A real, concrete difference. The truth is, Louisiana has terrible health statistics. We usually rank 48th or 49th in terms of our health. Our board of directors got together and said, “How do we change that statistic? How do we move up to 30th and then 25th and then beyond?” How can we actually make an impact and, yes, move the needle.

Q:           So the plan was born from a passion to somehow break through to people and really help them change in a way that hasn’t been seen previously?

A:         Well, for five years in a row, we’ve seen this report card. And for five years, the major health practitioners in the state get together to discuss change and we get excited about change. And then, that’s it, no movement in our numbers. So, it’s pretty difficult not to work in this field and see we have to do something different. It was disheartening to see our numbers, but at the same time, it motivated us to do something different. And this is going to do it. I believe that.

Q:          Why? Why so much confidence in the Challenge initiatives?

A:         Because this is not just grant making… This is building a movement.

Q:         Explain what you mean by that.

A:          We’ve put the right partners together, throughout the state, to target those critical areas we need to change – activities for kids, for communities, access to healthy food, nutrition education. We have 500 organizations working together to make this happen. No one is working in a vacuum. Every program compliments each other. And the overall effect will be a change in attitudes, in individuals, in communities, in the state as a whole.

Q:          I know there are participants from all over the state, including New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Shreveport, LaSalle… And even more applied to be a part of the grant program, right?

A:          Yes,  we had 49 applicants pledging a total of $110 million. We couldn’t fund them all. But you know, we asked a lot of those we couldn’t help if they still planned on going forward with their programs, without our assistance. And 70% said yes. That’s amazing. I believe there’s enough energy in this project to keep going even beyond us, without us. And that’s what it’s about –starting that ‘it takes a village’ mentality. It has to be an entire community working together or it will never work.

Q:         Why do you think you got such a positive response? What is it about this program that excited people?

A:         Because people are hungry for this change and we’ve clearly touched a nerve. We’re just the key that started the engine, but we aren’t running the whole car. It takes a lot of pieces working together to make this work. And it’s happening. A lot of people have come together to make this a reality. And that’s why we’ll see the change. That’s why we’ll see that needle move.