A grant for $50,000 won’t solve the myriad health problems that plague Yakima County, but it’s a good place to start, say community health leaders who will be working together under the grant to prioritize certain health needs here.

The state Health Care Authority earlier this month awarded $485,000 in planning grants to 10 health partnerships as part of the State Health Care Innovation Plan, which came out of the Legislature this year as a road map for how the state’s efforts will fit into national health reform.

“We’re trying to create a space and a forum where different organizations with different missions can work collectively to solve problems, in a way that’s transparent and collaborative and also gets to the root cause of the problem,” said Andre Fresco, administrator of the Yakima Health District, one of the partners in the effort.

Depending on the outcome of the next six months of planning, the different community partnerships around the state could be designated “Accountable Communities of Health” and potentially receive larger grants to continue their efforts, Health Care Authority officials say.

Yakima County’s partnership received $50,000, which will pay for various health entities to examine what health issues ought to be addressed first here in the Valley. At this point, it doesn’t pay for implementation of any strategies that may be devised.

The partnerships are meant to encourage collaboration among many entities that affect the health of local residents, including hospitals, federally qualified health centers, schools, public health districts, and social service organizations. Yakima County’s list has 18 different organizations, from Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital to Educational Service District 105 to the Yakima Housing Authority. As the planning process continues, more groups may join.

The $50,000 will pay for a few people to do focus groups, collect data and put together an organizational structure to help manage the rest of the team, said Kay Bassett of Heritage University, another key player.

“We’re looking at a huge thing,” Bassett said. “What we’d like to do is, once we get the partnership going ... to form a group that makes decisions of what things do we attack; what can we do with the resources we have, how best to use them.”

Health in general, and particularly in poor, rural areas, is largely influenced by so-called social determinants, such as proximity to grocery stores with fresh produce, or an individual’s level of education. Stress can be very detrimental to people’s health, Bassett added, so things like unemployment and housing will also be discussed.

Heritage is providing a project director and some administrative help, including staff who have experience conducting research in the community.

The group will meet at least every month, then different subcommittees will likely meet more often, Bassett said.

Collaborating across disciplines is the main goal of this initial planning grant, she said.

“Any health care entity feels they have a certain mission, and they don’t necessarily coordinate with other people or other groups that are also focused on their own mission,” she said. “So (this is) bringing them all together, saying, ‘let’s work together on this problem and see what we can do as a group.’”

Many members of the group already work on some or all of the issues that will be discussed. The planning grant is supposed to help them identify, as a group, which problems need to be prioritized and addressed first.

Common health concerns here include high rates of diabetes and obesity, including among children; lack of access to healthy foods; and limited access to health care, though that may change as more low-income people gain coverage under health reform.

Health reform seeks to change the way payment for health care works, too, moving away from a fee-for-service model to one where health care entities are reimbursed for keeping their patient populations healthy. That is expected to reduce avoidable costs to the health care system.

“What’s essentially happening is the federal government is saying that things are changing nationwide, and our state is trying to prepare local communities for this transition,” Fresco said. “These funding opportunities give us the flexibility to begin that planning process to solve problems at the local level.”

Though this initial planning phase will not make many visible changes in the community, it should set up the group with a specific plan of action for the next round of grants, which members hope they can attain next year.

“Never underestimate the impact that well-designed planning and community partnerships can have on long-term outcomes,” said Diane Patterson, vice president of Memorial. “I’m most excited about the transformation we can make in the community when we all work together.”