In his years running the Children's Defense Fund of Minnesota, Jim Koppel was always thinking up ways to get more kids to the doctor.
In his new job at the state Health Department, he's thinking up ways to keep everyone healthy enough so they don't need to see a doctor at all.
What if fewer Minnesotans developed asthma? What if fewer kids were exposed to lead? What if elderly homeowners had fewer accidents?
The result is a new Health Department project called "Healthy Homes," which made its debut Monday at the north Minneapolis home of Ora Lee Law. A diminutive grandmother with breathing problems and a pacemaker, Law has owned her Thomas Avenue house for 48 years. She recently replaced her windows to get rid of the lead paint and dust. By the time Koppel's team left Monday afternoon, she had a checklist for the next steps: a carbon monoxide detector, brighter lights over her front steps and a handrail for the basement stairs.
"I go downstairs holding onto the walls," she said with a sheepish smile. "But with the grandchildren running around here, railings will be safer."
If housing seems an odd venue for public health crusaders, the data say otherwise. Radon is a leading cause of lung cancer; accidental falls are the top cause of emergency room visits for Minnesotans younger than 10 and older than 24.
"We want to address health problems upstream -- before they occur," Koppel said.
The state is enlisting partners for that. The Sustainable Resource Center in Minneapolis, which conducts hundreds of home energy audits and lead tests each year, now also checks for allergens, mold, tripping hazards and other risks. Koppel is thinking of expanding the idea to other professionals -- building inspectors and block nurses, for instance -- and financing options like a loan pool for home improvements.
"There are really only two ways to save money in the health care system," Koppel said. "You can limit payments and access to providers, or you can get people healthy. If you're healthier, we're all better off."