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How can City Hall improve our health? A new push in Pinellas hopes to show the way.

The charitable organization that owns a 20 percent stake in St. Petersburg's Bayfront Health hospital is working with local governments to improve the public's health, part of a strategy to make a difference in new and often subtle ways.

The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg on Wednesday announced its "Health In All Policies" project, aimed at getting local officials to think more deeply about the impact of their decisions, large and small, on residents' well-being. Over the next three years, the foundation will spend $1.55 million to hire three planners who will join the staffs of the city of Pinellas Park, the city of St. Petersburg and Pinellas County government.

Their job: educate local policymakers on how the public's health is affected by the laws they pass and the decisions they make, from paving a street to making a zoning change. The funding also will provide support for the Health Department in Pinellas County.

"Fifty percent of our health is influenced outside of the doctor's office," said Sandra Whitehead, who spoke at the announcement on behalf of the National Environmental Health Association. "Health is determined by more than just access and exercise. This is why social support from the community is so important. Being able to bike or walk safely in your city comes from policy, which affects our health."

The Health In All Policies platform was created the American Public Health Association, the Public Health Institute and the California Department of Public Health. Pinellas County is the first in the United States to use the platform to employ city workers. Washington D.C., Kansas City, Mo., and Louisville, Ky., also have active Health In All Policies programs.

Local officials, including St. Petersburg City Council chair Darden Rice, Pinellas Park Vice Mayor Patricia Johnson and Whit Blanton, executive director of Forward Pinellas, stressed the need for affordable, easy-to-use public transit and more pedestrian and bike-friendly roads for residents.

"It is a great challenge to connect all of our walkable downtowns and eliminate food deserts," Blanton said.

Officials say they know it will take some time to institute real change that will benefit residents.

"There are 24 cities here and only four county-wide systems," said Randall Russell, CEO of the foundation, referring to entities like the school district and sheriff's office. "This is just the beginning, but it's going to take a long time."

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The foundation's three-year commitment to fund the health policies project comes on the heels of the county's latest health needs assessment, which the local health department also released on Wednesday. Health department officials collected data from more than 700 Pinellas residents last year, as well as national data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Census Bureau, to compile a report outlining the state of health in the county, including its pitfalls and promise.

The leading causes of death in Pinellas County continue to be heart disease and cancer, which is in line with the rest of the country. But the number of unintentional deaths, like from car accidents, is now third on the list. Suicide in Pinellas County is exceptionally high compared to the state average, and the county has surpassed the state's average in the number of suicides reported each year since 2011.

In 2016, for example, Pinellas reported 214 suicides, a rate of 19.6 suicides for every 100,000 residents. The state rate was 14.1 suicides per 100,000.

The health assessment also showed that only 34.7 percent of adults living in Pinellas County are at a healthy weight. More than 60 percent of survey responders fit into the overweight or obese categories.

Because of these results, the health department has identified access to care, mental health and substance abuse, access to transportation, socioeconomic factors and collaborative partnerships as its priorities for 2018.

"Data can only do so much," said Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Health Department in Pinellas. "Data needs to be useful, but most of all, actionable. So we're talking about how we can use it to be part of the solutions."

The last county health assessment was completed in 2014. Individual hospitals often conduct their own health needs assessments as well.

The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg uses grants and other activities to improve the health of people with limited means and little access to health care. Earlier this summer it announced a $2.2 million grant aimed at reducing the rate of HIV infections in Pinellas County by 50 percent in three years. It also will open a Social Change Center in the Lakeview shopping plaza at 2333 34th St. S, to provide meeting space for its employees and community partners next year.

City officials instituted the need for the foundation in 2013 when the hospital then known as Bayfront Medical Center was bought by a for-profit chain. The profits from the sale were used to seed the charitable organization that was meant to carry out Bayfront's mission as the city's oldest and largest hospital.

The foundation oversees a $170 million endowment. But the for-profit chain that bought the hospital, Health Management Associates, was quickly acquired by another chain, Community Health Systems, and the foundation drifted into the background for several years.

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In 2016, the foundation awarded $4 million grants to 19 nonprofit organizations for the first time, including $161,575 to Family Resources, Inc. for an LGBTQ homeless youth project and $30,000 to the Pinellas County Urban League for a clergy mental health roundtable series. Last year, it offered grants ranging from $10,000 to $15,000 to 29 local organizations for various community health programs.

Also last year, the foundation went before the St. Petersburg City Council to try to separate itself from the hospital, but city officials derailed plans to change the ownership structure and the foundation's chance to become independent from Bayfront Health.

Contact Justine Griffin at or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.