Minnesota’s lower-than-average health costs are often traced to sources ranging from the quality of its medical care (think Mayo and the University of Minnesota) to the Clean Indoor Air Act of 1975 (thank you, Rep. Phyllis Kahn) to the local gene pool (all those long-lived Vikings). 

A more important contributor may be this: Minnesotans believe in strong communities, populated by people who don’t lack for life’s necessities, and they are willing to expend effort to keep them that way. So suggested Health Partners CEO Mary Brainerd Thursday at a fundraising luncheon for Hearth & Hope: Women of Habitat, a subset of Minnesota’s chapter of Habitat for Humanity.

What’s a health care executive doing promoting a nonprofit dedicated to affordable housing? Brainerd explained that housing and health are powerfully linked.

She cited University of Wisconsin research that ranks living in a stable and prosperous community as more important than the quality of medical care as a predictor of good health and longevity. “Whether people live in stable housing, in neighborhoods where people own their homes, in families where people can take pride and live a stable life, makes a huge difference,” Brainerd said.

Community assets such as the availability of living-wage jobs, healthful food and quality education even outrank behavioral choices such as exercise, alcohol consumption and smoking, she said, though that distinction is fuzzy. One’s community influences one’s behavior. For example, safe neighborhoods allow people to be physically active.

At a time when national policymakers are understandably focused on the changes being wrought by the Affordable Care Act, Minnesotans have an opportunity to think more broadly about how best to achieve health care’s goal – good health throughout a long life. Affordable access to medical care is necessary;   Brainerd and Habitat for Humanity do well to note that it’s not sufficient.