Benton and Linn counties both held steady in this year’s health rankings, with Benton coming in as the third-healthiest among Oregon’s 36 counties for the fourth straight year and Linn rated No. 22 for the second year in a row.
The 2016 County Health Rankings were released today by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, which compare counties in all 50 states each year on more than 30 factors.
Benton County ranked best in the state in several broad areas that influence health, particularly health behaviors, clinical care and socioeconomic factors.
For example, the county had lower-than-average levels of smoking, obesity, physical inactivity and teen births.
Only 13 percent of Benton County residents lack health insurance, compared with 17 percent for the state as a whole, and the county has substantially better-than-average numbers of primary care doctors and mental health providers per capita.
The county also has high educational attainment rates, low unemployment and a violent crime rate less than half the state average.
As in past years, however, Benton fared poorly in some areas, with higher-than-average rates of excessive drinking, drunken driving deaths and sexually transmitted diseases. On the economic front, the county got poor marks for income inequality and severe housing issues such as overcrowding and high housing costs.
Linn County fared well in a number of metrics.
For instance, Linn was below the state average for drunken-driving deaths and sexually transmitted infections and equaled the average rate of adult smoking (17 percent). Like its neighbor to the west, Linn County’s violent crime rate is less than half the statewide average.
Despite having lower median household income, Linn did better than Benton County on some economic metrics, with lower-than-average rates of income inequality and severe housing issues.
On the other hand, Linn has higher-than-average rates of adult obesity, physical inactivity and teenage births. The county also has lower-than-average rates for high school graduation and post-secondary education, coupled with above-average rates of unemployment and childhood poverty.
Mid-valley health officials were cautious about reading too much into the rankings.
“The areas we do well in are the areas around provision of health care, insurance rates — our obesity rate is one of the lowest if not the lowest in the state,” noted Charlie Fautin, deputy director of the Benton County Health Department. “Those things all have to do with higher educational attainment, socioeconomic status, a lot of the things that make this a nice place to live.”
By the same token, some of the negatives in Benton County’s rankings likewise are the result of structural issues that may not be easy to change.
“The standard in research has indicated that if a family or individual is spending more than one-third of their income on housing, they’re probably shortchanging something else,” Fautin said. “In the Corvallis rental market in Benton County, we have almost 60 percent of our population spending more than one-third of their income on housing — that’s something that really jumps out.”
Frank Moore, director of health services for Linn County, had similar comments about the rankings.
“On the one hand, we take them seriously,” he said. “But on the other hand, I don’t put a lot of stock in them because there’s a lot of things that are outside the control of public health and mental health.”
He also noted that public health gets short shrift from budget writers in Salem, estimating that state funding makes up less than 40 percent of his department’s budget.
And he lamented the false sense of competition created by the county rankings, which may tend to gloss over some of the social, economic and other factors that create regional disparities.
“Unfortunately,” Moore said, “people use these rankings to compare counties.”