PEMBROKE — North Carolina’s largest health-care insurer has made a $775,000 investment in the region’s health through The University of North Carolina at Pembroke’s College of Health Sciences.
In a joint announcement made on campus Friday morning, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina and its Health Blue program for Medicaid recipients, unveiled a gift that will establish a new UNCP Community and Wellness Institute. The Institute will enhance the education and outreach of the university’s nursing, counseling and social work programs and aid in the health and welfare of UNCP students.
“Our mission at Blue Cross and Blue Shield is to uplift the health and well being of our members,” said Dr. Patrick Conway, BCBS’s chief executive officer. “I know UNCP is going to make dramatic improvements to the health of this region.”
Conway knows the way to Robeson County. It was his second visit to the county this week after dedicating a playground installation Wednesday at the Lumbee Tribe Cultural Center in Maxton.
“I want North Carolina to be the healthiest state in the nation within a generation, and I want Robeson County to be an exemplary model for that goal,” Conway said.
In praising the new partnership, UNCP and local leaders called out the glaring health-care disparities between rich and poor, rural and urban communities.
“This is a seminal day in the life of this university,” said David Ward, UNCP’s chief academic officer. “This gift is a turning point that cements the relationship between Blue Cross and Blue Shield, UNCP and our community. It will change the lives of citizens of North Carolina.”
UNCP Chancellor Robin Cummings called it a “solid commitment” to the region that will impact the entire county and region’s health. A former surgeon and director of North Carolina’s health programs, he laid out the challenge ahead.
“The life expectancy of a person born in Robeson County is seven years less than a person in Wake County,” Cummings said. “Compared with state averages, obesity is 10 percent greater here, diabetes is double and infant mortality 45 percent higher.
“It will take a sustained commitment to turn this around, but present circumstances do not determine future outcomes,” he added. “There are real opportunities to move the needle.”
Health Department Director Bill Smith also hailed the partnership in a county that ranks last among North Carolina’s 100 counties in a health survey conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The health disparity between rural, eastern North Carolina counties and the rest of the state is a problem of wealth or the lack of it, because “health and wealth are joined at the hip,” Smith said.
“Education is the answer,” he said. “Health and welfare are a big part of this regional university’s mission.”
The challenges are great and getting greater as a result of the rising crisis of opioid use, Smith said.
“Robeson County has more opioid prescriptions than any county in the state,” he said. “We average 100 pills per person, per year.”
The social work and counseling programs at UNCP are at the nexus of the solution, said Brittany Chess, a graduate student in school counseling.
“School counselors sit between the schools and the health and wellness of students and families,” Chess said. “My training here has provided me with the understanding of health disparities in rural America.”
Besides the graduate program in school counseling, UNCP offers master’s degrees in agency counseling, social work and nursing alongside corresponding undergraduate programs.
The plan for the Community and Wellness Institute is to insert the university further into the community and to provide more hands-on experiences in the community for students like Chess, UNCP leaders say. It will bring in world class speakers and work to ensure the health and wellness of UNCP students.
Scott Bigelow can be reached at 910-644-4497 or [email protected]