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    Esther Dyson speaks to a crowd of over 150 in Lakeport on November 21. Photo credit: Nathan DeHart.

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    Susan Jen engages a group in discussion at the November 21 meeting. Photo credit: Nathan DeHart.

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    The HICCup team: Marvin Avilez, Rick Brush, and Esther Dyson. Photo credit: Nathan DeHart.

Lake County Prepares to Take a “Quantum Leap” on the Way to Wellville

Monday, November 24, 2014

On Friday, November 21, a group of over 150 community members gathered in Lakeport to talk about a pressing issue: the health of Lake County, ranked 58th out of 58 counties in California in terms of health. This ranking is based largely on significant tobacco and other drug use, suicide and drug-related deaths, and high rates of heart disease and stroke. Although many organizations have worked tirelessly on these issues, Lake County has hovered at the bottom of the list for the past decade. Enter the “Way to Wellville,” an experimental but promising initiative that may be exactly what Lake County needs to turn its health around. Wellville’s definition of health encompasses all aspects of the well-being of the community including physical, mental, and emotional health; the economy and employment opportunities; and the way the community sees itself.  

Who and what is Wellville?

The Way to Wellville is a nationwide challenge among communities of fewer than 100,000 people. Of the 42 applications received in May 2014, five were chosen based on their perceived ability to come together as a community and succeed in the face of major health concerns. They are: Clatsop County, Oregon; Greater Muskegan, Michigan; Niagara Falls, New York; Spartanburg, South Carolina; and Lake County, California.

The challenge was launched by the Health Initiative Coordinating Council (HICCup), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to community health. At its helm is Angel Investor Esther Dyson, who received an economics degree from Harvard in 1972 and has been named one of the most powerful women in business by Forbes magazine. Her resume is as impressive as it is eclectic: in addition to writing best-selling books and investing in companies that sold for tens of millions of dollars, she also trained as a backup cosmonaut in Russia from 2008-2009. Recently, her attention shifted to health. “I thought, wouldn’t it be great if someone held a contest to see how health could be improved in a few communities?” Dyson mused at the November 21 meeting. “And then I realized, who better to do it than me?” That’s how HICCup and the Way to Wellville were born in 2013.

The Way to Wellville is couched as a challenge because HICCup’s intention is to create “a healthy competition that creates the healthiest communities,” but the goal is that the “Wellville Five” – the five communities chosen to participate – will work together and learn from each other’s attempts to move the dial on the five health metrics.

The challenge officially kicks off in January 2015 and ends in December 2019. During those five years, each of the five communities will work toward making progress on five health indicators:

  1. Health impact – e.g. reduction in diabetes and heart disease rates
  2. Financial impact – e.g. health care cost per capita
  3. Social/environmental context – e.g. reduced crime rates
  4. Sustainability –e.g. health financing system, funding diversification
  5. Local priorities – will be specific to each community; also called the “wild card”

In the meantime, each Wellville Five group is holding planning meetings to decide how Wellville will play out in their communities. In Lake County, there have been two significant meetings, plus hundreds of conversations and ideas shared among early adopters.

Although HICCup is not providing financial assistance, there may be a prize at the end as well as incentives throughout. The HICCup team will also help gather and analyze data, attract capital investment, and train community members in entrepreneurship. In other words, the communities themselves must lead the charge, and HICCup will provide key support along the way.

How did Lake County get involved?

Lake County would not have been considered for the Way to Wellville were it not for local enthusiast and Director of Lake County’s Health Leadership Network Susan Jen. According to Jen, the same priority recommendations have come up year after year in the community needs assessment, but little traction was gained despite the excellent work being done in the community. “We have many programs working to address these priorities, but fixing them is a heavy lift,” says Jen. “It seemed that Wellville could help us think about lifting it together through aligned action.”

She wrote and submitted the Wellville application after hearing about the contest in a national wellness newsletter. Says Jen, “I looked at it and thought, this is a unique opportunity and I’m going to take it, because we have so many positive things happening that can factor into this.” Her seize-the-day attitude paid off, and Lake County made it through the first level of applications. During the second level, HICCup asked for more information, including what other local programs could support the Wellville efforts. Jen highlighted the work of several organizations in the application, and connected with these organizations to participate in the HICCup site visit in July. The HICCup team packed a lot into their July visit. They:

In August the Wellville Five were announced, and representatives from each community attended a summit in September to get to know each other and start to think about what the next five years will look like. In addition to Jen, North Coast Opportunities Executive Director Patty Bruder, St. Helena Hospital–Clear Lake CEO David Santos, Superintendent of Konocti School District Donna Becnel, and First 5 Lake County Consultant Cathy Ferron participated in the Tampa conference on behalf of Lake County. Their organizations currently comprise the organizing nucleus for Wellville. According to Bruder, “The summit was really exciting. There’s a feeling that the way we do business is changing, and we need to figure it out together. It’s going to take every citizen – not just the service providers, but the whole community – to really turn things around, but it can be done.” She adds with conviction, “Now’s the time for Lake County.”

Jen also emphasizes the importance of collaboration to make Wellville work. “We realize the value of teamwork and collective impact, so we don’t want it to be a top-down structure in terms of how it’s organized and implemented,” says Jen. “Everyone needs a chance to participate, and everyone’s opinion matters. We are coming together as many voices, but we need to speak with one voice to write the Wellville story together. Wellville belongs to everyone.”

What happened on November 21?

The November 21 meeting in Lakeport was led by Jen, Dyson, HICCup CEO Rick Brush, and Bay area native and advisor Marvin Avilez. Designed as a “summit” to strategize what the Way to Wellville will look like in Lake County, it drew representatives from community, health, and government agencies, local banks, non-profits, schools, and private sector businesses from around the county. Potential partner businesses and organizations from around the country also attended; Wellville may be new, but it’s being watched closely by those who see its potential.

Brush started the day with a presentation on the current status of health in our country, pointing out that the U.S. spends $2.9 trillion per year on health care – 17% of the country’s GDP – with only 3% used for preventative care. “We need to shift the market from the treatment of illness to the promotion of health,” said Brush, noting that a major focus of the Wellville challenge is to disrupt the health system to focus on prevention rather than treatment.

Health is tied to many factors, including one’s diet, social circle, employment opportunities, and environment at large. And, since the Way to Wellville is about improving health in all aspects of a person’s life, many topics were discussed throughout the day that one might not typically expect at a wellness summit. For example, one common theme throughout the day was Clear Lake, with most participants agreeing that the health of the lake is a direct reflection of the health of the county and that the two are intertwined – healthier lake, healthier community. Another challenge that came up consistently is the “underground economy” that directly and indirectly affects the health of Lake County and its residents.

Financial health for individuals and the county at large was probably the largest topic of the day. Brush and Avilez both spoke about Social Impact Bonds or “Pay for Success” investment opportunities. This relatively new concept attracts values-oriented investors to proven projects that focus on doing social good. Avilez shared the results of a recent study that showed over 50% of investment clients from major banks were interested in this kind of project, but that very few currently exist – a perfect opportunity for the Wellville Five to present their successful programs to interested investors attracted by HICCup. ““The idea is that in addition to healthier communities, we become investable communities,” says Jen.

The day ended with a reflection on what had been discussed and what should come next. Jen led the discussion, asking for everyone’s input on how to proceed and the best ways to get community members involved in the process. “People are very open to this, and so far the public reception has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Jen to the audience. “We need to organize ourselves to realize the potential of this great undercurrent, and follow through on our best ideas.”

Many people spoke up, but perhaps none so enthusiastically as Josiah Phillips, a relatively recent transplant who says that the natural beauty and welcoming community of Lake County saved his life when he moved to the Cobb Mountain area in 2014. Like many, Phillips wasn’t sure what exactly he could do to help with Wellville, but he was up to the challenge. “I’m here to help, and there are a lot of talented people here who are ready to help, too,” said Phillips.

What’s next?

The Way to Wellville clock officially starts ticking in January 2015, and Jen invited each participating organization to make an announcement in their own way – through a newsletter, e-mail, article, or any other method – to let people know that Wellville is here, their organization is part of it, and the whole community will need to band together to make it succeed. There’s enthusiasm, hope, and determination, but exact next steps are still up in the air.

“We know that we have longstanding health statistics that aren’t improving in any dramatic way, and we all realize it’s going to take more than five years to make the significant changes we’re looking for, but we’re hoping Wellville will enable us to make a quantum leap forward,” says Jen. “There will be obstacles, and they will be hard to address. But working through them will show us that we can get through the tangles, and overcoming those challenges will make our efforts worthwhile.”

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