How to make Bennington healthy: Panel addresses roots of Bennington health crisis

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BENNINGTON >> On Thursday evening, Bennington College hosted a panel discussion designed to determine how best to address the multi-faceted health care difficulties facing many Benningtonians.

The panel focused their discussion on the social determinants of health, essentially the environmental factors that affect an individual's health and access to health care. To that end, professionals from many different parts of the community were invited to speak on the panel. The group was made up of private practice primary care physician Dr. Avery Wood; Dr. Bernard Bandman of the Center for Communication in Medicine; Billie Lynn Allard, Administrative Director of Care Management, Transitions of Care and Ambulatory Services at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center; Dr. Mike Brady, who operates the dental program at Molly Stark Elementary School; Cathy Vogel of the Vermont Department of Health's Bennington office; Jennifer Fels of the Blueprint for Health and Spoke Program; Nissa Walke of the Vermont Department of Health's Bennington office; Sadie Fischesser of the Vermont Agency of Human Services; Shires Housing Executive Director Stephanie Lane; and Sue Andrews, executive director Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services, which operates the Kitchen Cupboard and the Bennington Free Clinic.

The moderators for the evening were Susan Sgorbati, director of Bennington College's Center for the Advancement of Public Action, which hosted the event, and State Senator Brian Campion (D-Bennington). Many other elected officials were in attendance for the event, including several members of the Bennington Select Board and State Rep. Mary Morrissey (R-Bennington).

"This is the first time, perhaps ever, that we've all had the opportunity to come together, break down the silos we all live in, and have some really important conversations," said Campion, "I think all of us that have run for public office in this state have knocked on doors, and knocking on doors and talking to one's constituents gives you an incredible look into their lives. Their successes, their failures, and their struggles. And one of their struggles continues to be health care. It's heartbreaking. There are families out there that still can't access health care or dental services and aren't eating properly." Campion said he saw the event as being the first of hopefully several similar conversations.

SVMC Chief Executive Officer Thomas Dee gave the opening remarks for the evening, and described the panel as a great opportunity. "A health care system treating people with CT scanners and linear accelerators, those are all great for the high-end needs," he said, "but it does not deal with the chronic illnesses that we're dealing with. That's what's driving the health care system and health care dollars."

"We're in it for the long haul," he said, "We're in it to partner and work with the people in this room tonight, and we're excited about trying to change how we provide our care, and I think we can be very successful if we all work together. This is not about the medical center controlling things. If we try to control everything, we will fail. We have to work with the people with the expertise, and we are trying to change how we do business."

"I see Bennington through a very specific lens," said Andrews, "I'm dealing with people who live in and around poverty all the time." She said that some of the most significant factors that influence a person's health are not their access to things like CT scans, but instead more basic things: food, shelter, and safety. "My organization sees people every day who are struggling with the social determinants," she said, adding that income is the most important factor of all, "What's the model of a healthy community? One with money."

The panel discussion, including a question and answer session with the audience, lasted about 90 minutes, after which time everyone in the room understood that the conversation on how to improve Bennington's health has to continue.

"What is our vision of what we want this community to be?" Bennington Select Board member Michael Keane asked the gathered crowd, "I would argue that that vision of a healthy community is as admirable of a vision as you'll see. For me, whatever the next steps that happen, they need to happen in the context of that vision."

"One thing we're discovering in the health system," said Dee, "is that our future is not how we develop things up on the hill off of Dewey Street, it's how we get integrated into the community."

Contact Derek Carson at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.


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