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The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene announced last year that it was going to devote $16 million over the next four years to reduce health disparities in five communities around the state to be designated Health Enterprise Zones.

The first five areas were designated last month as HEZs. The selected communities will receive state assistance to do such things as establish patient-centered medical offices, hire more personnel and transport needy patients to health care facilities. In some cases, state income tax credits and hiring tax credits could be offered to health care practitioners and repayment assistance for student loans could be offered to medical doctors who locate within those zones. While Charles County was not among the five, the Lexington Park area of St. Mary’s County was.

The HEZ program was established in April 2012 with the Maryland Health Improvement and Disparities Reduction Act and is modeled on Economic Enterprise Zones. The zones were chosen on a competitive basis.

The pilot program is designed to reduce health disparities, based on geographic location, race and ethnicity. Health officials in St. Mary’s see it as a way to improve the quality of life of many of the residents living in the Lexington Park, Great Mills and Park Hall areas. Officials there hope to establish a community health care center, bring more doctors and social workers to the area and start a van service to help residents who need transportation to and from their appointments — some of the same kinds of programs that Charles County could have benefitted from.

Dr. Dianna E. Abney, the acting director of the Charles County Department of Health, told the Maryland Independent in January that one of her goals was to have the western part of the county earn that HEZ designation to help fight, among other things, diabetes, obesity and other chronic diseases that afflict many of the folks who live in the Bryans Road, Indian Head, Nanjemoy and Marbury areas. Abney wants to improve access to health care for those who live in those areas. She also suggested a “wellness coach” be hired for one of the local elementary schools to teach youngsters about healthy lifestyles and the benefits of regular exercise and eating healthy foods. Her plan is to “do things that are innovative, not just bringing in doctors.” The money that accompanies the designation would have made that task much easier. The St. Mary’s HEZ expects to receive $3.4 million during the next four years.

Health officials shouldn’t get discouraged. The groundwork is being laid for a program that ultimately will benefit the residents of the western part of the county. Charles’ application had made the first cut when our reporter talked to Abney. Perhaps the county’s plan will get the attention it deserves next time.

While learning that the county had not been chosen for the pilot program was disappointing, local officials did receive some encouraging news just after the original announcement was made. Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D), speaking at the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland meeting in Annapolis, assured members of the legislative delegation and other county leaders in attendance that Charles County will not be left behind. The state received 19 applications from communities that wanted the HEZ designation and the perks that come with it.

Only five were chosen this time around, but he said that the prospects for Charles’ future selection look good.

“As we find more resources, we’re going to include you in that, as well,” he said.

Lieutenant governor, we’re going to hold you to that.