America's Health Rankings, released last month, provides a comprehensive overview of how all 50 states and the District of Columbia compare with one another on a broad range of health measures, ranging from adequate health insurance to immunizations to living in supportive neighborhoods.
The study, sponsored by the United Health Foundation, ranks Arizona 49th for children's health. The state also ranks near the bottom for the health of women.
Ana Fuentevilla, chief medical officer of UnitedHealthcare Community and State, who grew up in Arizona to immigrant parents, says she was "saddened" to hear Arizona's ranking for women, but perhaps even more so for the findings regarding children.
"We should be worried about Arizona kids being ranked 49th in terms of their health outcomes compared to other states," she says. "To me, that's a wake-up call. It's a call to action."
Fuentevilla presented the study's findings on Tuesday at an event put together by the Preventative Health Collaborative, a coalition of more than 100 partners working to improve services and care for children from birth to age 5 and their families in Maricopa County.
Fuentevilla called on the more than 150 participants at the event to "take action collectively" to improve children's health in Arizona. "We can’t be complacent," she said.
In an interview with New Times, Fuentevilla spoke about the consequences of Arizona continuing on the path it's on.
"If we don't have children living healthy lives, then they’re going to grow up to be very chronically ill adults," she says. "This is our chance to say, 'Let's start over. Let's fix what we can quickly, and let's fix the slower areas with time.'"
The study ranks Arizona near the bottom on other measures, as well.
For example, the state ranks 49th on adverse childhood experiences. These experiences — which include living with someone who has an alcohol or drug problem, being a victim or witness of neighborhood violence, and having a parent who served time in jail — can have a negative impact on a child's future development and health.
In addition, Arizona was one of the states where there were large variations in the health of women, children, and infants. The study found that while Arizona ranks low for the health of women and children, the state ranks above average for the health of infants, coming in at 20th.
Several of the speakers at Tuesday's forum spoke about the importance of providers taking a holistic view of what women and children are facing. They noted that a mother often worries not just about the health of her children, but also whether she can put food on the table or give the family a place to stay.
Alejandra Kisebach, a community-outreach specialist for the Preventative Health Collaborative, drove home that point. She said she became homeless when her two sons were 5 months old and 5 years old. Worrying about her children's well-being, she turned to an aunt for help and was offered a place to stay.
"It was a small room with no floors, no windows, no electricity," she said, adding that she accepted the offer because "it was better than living in the street."
At the time, Kisebach was unemployed and the only money she had was $50 that her brother had given her. She had to make it last, so she bought a Big Mac from McDonald's every day and divided it among her two sons and herself. She later turned to food banks for help.
Kisebach was able to turn her life around after she attended a parenting class run by the Head Start program and heard about an opening for a teaching assistant. She applied and got the job.
Several years later, with the help of Head Start, Kisebach was able to go to college and earn a bachelor's degree in health administration and management.
"I am not standing here because I was great and amazing," Kisebach said. "I'm standing here because somebody took me under their wing, which was Head Start, and told me, 'You can do this. We believe in you. You have the power. You are a leader.'
"Those are the things our community needs to hear," she continued. "They don't need to know what they're doing wrong. They need to hear about the strengths and the power they have."
Struggling parents also need to hear that they're not alone, said Erika Montaño, a lead parent-support partner with the Family Involvement Center. At Tuesday's forum, Montaño spoke about how she'd felt "completely alone" after a doctor diagnosed her daughter with autism at age 3.
"The doctor basically gave me a pamphlet and said, 'Here you go. Here's the information,'" Montaño recounted. "But it didn't give me all the information. It didn't answer all my questions."
For a while, she struggled to find medical and behavioral services to help her daughter. Then she was connected with the Family Involvement Center, which provided the assistance and support she needed. Montaño now works at the center and uses her own experience to help other parents access services.
"I tell parents, 'I remember being in your shoes and walking in and feeling helpless and hopeless. But you're not alone any more,'" she said.