ConnectCASS to hire leader, diagnose needs

April 13, 2012 

ConnectCASS, a recently formed nonprofit organization, is gearing up to promote the whole health of the whole county.

Susan Mills-Gray, a nutrition specialist at University of Missouri Extension Center in Harrisonville, said the organization is an outgrowth of the Community Health Awareness and Resource Team.

But unlike CHART, which Mills-Gray served as president for the past several years, ConnectCASS will have a paid executive director and grant funding to support its mission, she said.

The grants are coming from the REACH Foundation and Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City, which were established in 2002 with the proceeds from the $1.13 billion sale of Health Midwest, a nonprofit hospital operator, to HCA Inc.

The foundations have long expressed a desire to help Cass County, which has been slipping in health categories including premature deaths, which increased by 338 to 7,272 last year.

But according to Mills-Gray, few of the small health-related nonprofits in Cass County have professional grant-writing capabilities, and the grants they have applied for were not large enough in scope to attract funding.

ConnectCASS was formed to clear those hurdles by presenting higher-quality applications for foundation, state and federal grants and by serving as an umbrella organization, fostering collaboration among existing health organizations.

“We don’t want to duplicate or take away from what the other groups are doing,” Mills-Gray said. “But this is a very fragmented county, where every community wants to do its own thing. If we can bring everyone together, what they could accomplish would be amazing.”

To get the ball rolling, the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City approved a one-time, $50,000 grant to CHART in November 2010. The money was used to conduct a review of the county’s health needs and to determine whether CHART or a new organization would be better suited to lead the improvement effort.

Ultimately, it was decided not to build on the existing organization, which was among CHARTs that the state created in every Missouri county in 1997. Ten years later, the program lost its federal funding and individual CHARTs lost the staff support they had been receiving from regional program directors. Consequently, most CHARTs folded.

“Cass County’s CHART was rare because we continued to meet and be successful,” said Mills-Gray, who listed production of a countywide health resource directory and pregnancy, suicide and child abuse prevention programs as accomplishments.

But despite a membership representing more than 20 health and social service organizations in Cass County, there was only so much the CHART members could do given the fact that “we all have full-time jobs,” Mills-Gray said.

By contrast, ConnectCASS will be served by its own full-time executive director, whose salary and support expenses will be covered through three annual grants of $100,000 recently approved by the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City.

Two to three finalists were scheduled to be interviewed for the position April 16, Mills-Gray said, “and we hope to have somebody in place by mid-May.”

The director will be selected by Mills-Gray and the nine other members of the ConnectCASS executive board. They were selected from a 20-member community advisory council formed to represent all four quadrants of the county.

The CAC was put together with help from Gary Mallory, former Cass County presiding commissioner, who was retained as a consultant as part of a $30,000 project financed by a grant from the REACH Foundation.

Mallory also has helped guide the executive director search, and grant that financed his services also paid for development of ConnectCASS’s logo, website and tagline: “Connecting people to enhance the whole health of Cass County.”

Toward that end, the CAC will serve as a sounding board, meeting quarterly to discuss the needs and service gaps communicated by the public.

In addition, once its director is in place, ConnectCASS will begin conducting a countywide health needs assessment to guide the its efforts.

Chris Lang, a ConnectCASS executive board member and CEO of Cass Regional Health Center, said one health issue facing the county is a need for public transportation. Without bus or taxi service in the county, he explained, access to medical, dental, mental health and substance abuse care is lacking for residents without vehicles.

Cass County also has an obesity rate higher than the state average, which could lead to ConnectCASS programs promoting hiking and biking trails and greater availability of fresh produce, he said.

“I think people perceive that since we are so close to the Kansas City metropolitan area that we probably wouldn’t have a lot of health care needs,” Mills-Gray added. “In reality, we do.”

Other health issues include poverty, which affects as many as 19 percent of families in some Cass County communities, and shortages of primary and dental care providers.

There is only one primary care provider for every 3,009 Cass County residents, which compares to one in 1,015 statewide and a national benchmark of one for every 631 individuals.

In addition, before the recent opening of a Belton clinic, there was no place in the county providing dental services to children on Medicaid, Mills-Gray said, and access to adult dental services remains an issue.

According to the 2011 County Health Rankings published by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Cass County ranked high – 16th among 114 Missouri counties. But just a year earlier, the county ranked 10th.

One of ConnectCASS’s goals will be to find out why the county’s ranking and premature death rate took turns for the worse last year. Another will be to turn those trends around.

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