Louisiana ranks dead last on health nationwide — a new initiative aims to change that

Two Black women stand on a podium, one is holding and speaking into a microphone.
Louisiana Health Equity Center founder and President Alma Stewart speaks at the kickoff luncheon for the LA40BY2030 initiative at the East Baton Rouge Parish Library in Baton Rouge, La., on Thursday, January 25, 2024. Photo by Alena Maschke

From its social and economic fabric to the physical environment and the behavior of its residents, Louisiana has been ranked the least healthy state in the nation for two years in a row.

A high premature death rate, high levels of economic hardship and low education levels are all signs and sources of a state in exceptionally bad health, according to the United Health Foundation, which has produced the in-depth America’s Health Rankings report for more than 30 years.

A new initiative, dubbed LA40by2030 and spearheaded by the Louisiana Center for Health Equity, hopes to develop solutions that will help lift the state out of its trailing position. The plan is to raise Louisiana’s ranking to 40th in the nation by 2030. Because Louisiana is so far behind, jumping 10 spots makes for an ambitious but achievable goal, the working group behind the initiative believes.

“It’s significant progress from where we are,” said Alma Stewart, a registered nurse and the president and founder of the Louisiana Center for Health Equity. “And it’s a challenge to even get there.”

Together with roughly 30 other organizations, from health service providers to faith-based groups, the center is working through a pilot program.

The pilot has been running since October and there are no deliverables to be shared with the public just yet, Stewart said, but one area the working group has been looking at is maternal mental health.

Louisiana’s maternal health outcomes are among the worst in the nation, and mental health is a significant contributing factor, Stewart, summarizing the group’s findings so far. Now, the center is hoping to work with partners such as the newly founded Office of Women’s Health and Community Health to find and implement ways to address the issue.

“We have to focus on those disparities and improving the health of those who are the least healthy,” Stewart said. “That is what brings down the overall health rankings. If we’re going to really improve those health rankings, we have to look at rural communities, we have to focus on minority communities, we have to look at gender.”

Louisiana’s neighbors in the ranking — Mississippi at 49th and Arkansas at 48th — also happen to be its geographic neighbors. That’s no coincidence, Stewart points out.

“It’s historic — it goes back to the legacy of the South,” Stewart said. And while stopping short of referring directly to the region’s history of slavery and segregation, “that’s why having a health equity strategy or approach is really key,” Stewart added.

By bringing together organizations from across the state to confront the underlying issues that cause Louisiana to rank so poorly, officials hope they can both bring additional awareness to those root causes and connect organizations already doing the work to address them with others in need of workable solutions, said Karen Wyble, VP of regional community affairs at Ochsner Lafayette General.

“The power is coming together as one,” Wyble said. “With this initiative, she’s bringing awareness, she’s bringing people to the table that can make a difference.”