Buncombe County August 2021


County Seat

Median Income

Population Density Designation

Asheville is the city that comes to mind when most people think of western North Carolina. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the city and greater Buncombe County are home to over a quarter of a million people. What many don’t realize is that while Asheville may be the most populous area in the region, western North Carolina has 23 counties. That’s a lot of counties with a lot of people who need access to health care and education.

At its root, this is what leaders from Blue Cross NC and western North Carolina came together to discuss recently. The Blue Cross NC team was joined by leaders from MAHEC, Dogwood Health Trust and Biltmore Farms to discuss the overall state of western NC and efforts to address the drivers of health in the region.

The team was also able to visit Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College for lunch during this leg of the tour. The president of the college, Dr. John Gossett, explained the importance of community colleges in connecting students to the workforce. Our next stop was the Buncombe County Schools District Office, where staff shared the positive impact of the MATCH program on their community. The MATCH program is a school-based interdisciplinary wellness program, and the expansion of the program was funded by Healthy Blue.

Leaders met for lunch to discuss the status of health care and overall wellness in the region, including educational attainment.

“You’re really approaching it holistically, but the other part is around inequities. I think it’s becoming more clear to us. Over the years we’ve talked about disparities, but these non-medical drivers of health are critical if you truly want to drive towards better overall health and well-being,” said Dr. Tunde Sotunde, president and CEO of Blue Cross NC.

Right now, it seems that one of the main challenges is not a lack of data about the issues in the region, but rather how to put that data into practice to transform lives.

“In addition to understanding what’s going on in the community, in the counties and how differently they are taking the data, we’ve got to make it actionable,” said Angela Boykin, VP of Engagement, Integration, Innovation and Healthy Blue CEO.

That’s exactly what education leaders in the area are trying to do. Dr. Laura Leatherwood, president of Blue Ridge Community College, is trying to translate the data into actionable college-to-workforce solutions. She sees understaffed hospitals as an opportunity for students to stay in the region and have meaningful work, but it takes time and effort to recruit.

“I think one of the greatest challenges that we’re seeing as a workforce is getting people interested in these particular positions,” said Leatherwood.

These issues of quality accessible health care and a strong education are interconnected. Jack Cecil, the vice chairman of Dogwood Health Trust, reminded the group that if we’re able to achieve the first two, social mobility may follow.

“It’s also economic development,” said Cecil.

He talked about a conversation he had with a state senator of the region in which the two discussed how to increase the average income for the county. Going to school at a community college and becoming a registered nurse (RN) is just one way to do that.

The takeaways from the conversation were clear: You can’t fix health care or improve poverty until you can improve education. This convening of leaders from both fields was a step in doing just that.

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U39702, 10/23