This article originally appeared in the Progress Times issue dated Friday, Feb. 1, 2019.
With a large population living in the Rio Grande Valley classified as obese, along with comparable diabetic statistics, the Hidalgo County Health Department is working toward changing the lifestyles of residents across the area.
Several programs, funded by the county, state and federal levels, are currently available at the Hidalgo County Health Department for those seeking help with improving their health. The issues stemming from high obesity rates have been targeted by the department for years.
According to DietSpotlight, a nutrition and weight-loss website that recently conducted a 2-year study on 1,370 male and female participants in Hidalgo County, men in the county weigh, on average, 216 pounds, with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 34. The study also found that women weigh 186 pounds on average, with a BMI of 33.
They also found that in 1990, 11 percent of the population in Texas was considered obese. In 2017, that rose to 33 percent.
Eduardo Olivarez, the Chief Administrative Officer for the Hidalgo County Health Department, spoke about how the county has been focusing on the high rates of obesity in the RGV.
“We’re very proud of the fact that Hidalgo County Health and Human Services has worked hand-in-hand with our community partners to deal with the great concern that we have in our county, which is dealing with obesity and diabetes,” Olivarez said. “But more importantly, it’s about all the related illnesses and medical complications that come hand-in-hand.”
He spoke about comorbidity, which is the tendency for one health issue like obesity to be compounded with other health and medical illnesses and issues including diabetes, high blood pressure and respiratory complications.
In 2012, the county and hospital partners got into the Medicaid 1115 Waiver, which is supported federally from Washington, D.C. It allowed the area to create $600 million worth of services in Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy County – most of which went into the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine.
“The number one goal was reducing emergency room and hospital admissions,” Olivarez said. “And what’s the best way to do that? Preventative medicine. You teach, you encourage, you support the client to manage their own life.”
Presently the Texas Health and Communities Grant and the Community and Clinical Health Bridge Project, are being used to keep preventative measures going in Hidalgo County.
“We’ve really been working on this for many, many years, this isn’t something new that we’ve done here,” Olivarez said. “We’re not a primary care facility, it’s preventative care. Our focus is keeping people out of the hospital, keeping people healthy and encouraging people to go to their physician.”
Olivarez said there are three factors that make treating obesity and chronic illnesses like diabetes more difficult in the Valley: transportation, access to healthcare/insurance and behavioral motivation.
“People cannot get to the doctor, preventative medicine, can’t get to that Zumba class or Boys & Girls Club for exercise,” Olivarez said, mentioning that the socioeconomic state of the RGV is a huge issue when it comes to obesity. “And the other thing is the access to health care. Right now we have 40 to 45 percent of our population [in the county] that is uninsured or underinsured.”
Hidalgo County Public Health Education Coordinator Rick Salinas is in charge of HidalGO Fit, a coalition led by the county which runs wellness programs that focus on working on the issues that come with obesity and diabetes in the Valley by motivating people to incorporate more physical activity into their daily routines. Olivarez said Salinas helps to oversee how the grants are used.
Currently, Hidalgo County has several fitness, diet and medical programs that can help people connect to reduced-cost or free health care screenings, lend them access to nutritional specialists and make behavioral and lifestyle changes that could potentially add years to their lives, said Olivarez.
Annually, HidalGO Fit and the health department work on an Active Living Plan for the county. Through their studies on the RGV as a whole, they have found that Hidalgo County residents are becoming more physically active, but there are still improvements to be made.
“Diabetes and obesity is not going to be controlled by a pill,” Olivarez said. “It’s got to be a life change and a behavioral change. We can help them find a program, but it’s got to be a sincere effort [on the citizen’s part]. The behavioral aspect is critical.”
The county has also been working on an initiative called “Eating Smart – Being Active,” which is an “evidence-based, healthy eating and active living curriculum” for the local entities to incorporate for adult learners with limited resources. It is currently available at the La Joya Independent School District Wellness Center, Proyecto Desarrollo Human, San Carlos Head Start, South Texas College Weslaco and the Progreso, San Carlos, Alamo and San Juan Community Resource Centers.
The county aims to keep funding for these kinds of programs going year-round by applying for grants at the state and federal levels, and is available for people in the event that they want to find out more about their services. Hidalgo County Health and Human Services can be reached at (956) 383-6221.
“Behavioral changes take time, diabetes and obesity is not going to be gone in a year or two,” Olivarez said. “It’s going to take a generation. It’s going to be a mindset.”