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The state has designated Lexington Park, Great Mills and Park Hall as the Greater Lexington Park Health Enterprise Zone, with plans to invest about $3.4 million into the community during four years. The ultimate goal is to improve access to primary care and reduce incidences of chronic disease.

Last week’s designation is part of a statewide pilot program designed to reduce health disparities, based on geographic location, race and ethnicity. Greater Lexington Park was one of five areas selected, along with Dorchester and Caroline counties, Capitol Heights in Prince George’s County, Annapolis and West Baltimore.

It’s an opportunity to improve quality of life of residents, said Joan Gelrud, vice president of MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital, which helped organize health care workers in St. Mary’s County to secure the Health Enterprise Zone designation.

When people are productive and working, the cost of health care goes down, Gelrud said. When people are treated in the right setting and as people are lifted from poverty, they’re better able to work and are less debilitated by chronic conditions. “The ripple effect will travel throughout the county,” she said.

Plans for the Greater Lexington Park Health Enterprise Zone include a new community health-care center located off Great Mills Road, near a mobile home park owned by Cherry Cove, attracting five new primary-care practitioners, one psychiatrist and two licensed social workers.

A health-care transportation route, including a 12-passenger van to take residents to health-care appointments for a small fee, is in the works. And, there are plans, Gelrud said, to hire a coordinator for the project.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D), who championed the program, said there’s an expectation that chronic illnesses will be measurably reduced across the state. Maryland health officials will monitor progress of all the Health Enterprise Zones, to ensure plans are followed and resources are spent as intended, he said.

Brown said the state is not just handing over grant money in this initiative. Much of the program is based on incentives, such as tax credits to health-care practitioners, repayment assistance for medical school loans of doctors who locate within the zones, and tax credits to clinics that hire new health-care professionals.

Brown said he’s confident that investing in targeted communities will reduce health-related disparities. Once that’s proven in Maryland’s first Health Enterprise Zones, Brown said, he’d like to implement similar efforts in underserved areas across the state.

Gelrud said there are about 1,723 residents for each physician in St. Mary’s County. That’s compared to 713 people per doctor across the state and 631 to one nationwide. Within the Greater Lexington Park Health Enterprise Zone, there are about 30,900 residents, and a severe shortage of primary-care providers, not just in the zone but farther south in the county, she said.

The program should reduce the need for residents to rely on hospital emergency rooms for issues that could be treated with regular primary care, said Dr. Meenakshi Brewster, St. Mary’s County health officer. It is intended to help prevent and address chronic disease and health concerns related to obesity and tobacco use, she said. Through transportation and communication, she also hopes the program will break down barriers to accessing healthy food, and improving overall mental health.

Kathleen O’Brien, CEO of Walden Behavioral Health, said residents in the zone will have opportunities to be treated holistically, as emphasis is increasingly placed on addressing mental health and substance abuse issues along with physical health.

Depressive disorders are far more prevalent among people with chronic diseases. And, people with behavioral health issues are often among the highest repeat users of emergency rooms, she said.

“If we can bring this together for this population, we can reduce the number of times they wind up in the emergency room,” O’Brien said.