After eight months of suspense, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has announced the six winners of the foundation’s nationwide Culture of Health prize. Sitka — unfortunately — didn’t make the list, but healthcare educators say that just being recognized as a finalist has been a shot in the arm.

Sitka was one of just 12 finalists for the prize, picked from over two hundred and fifty U.S. communities for a strong focus on healthy living.

“We were not selected, much to our chagrin,” said Doug Osborne, a health educator at the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium. “One of the things they said was – and there is some truth to this – is that well, you get everyone together and that’s great, and you have people who come up with ideas, and the citizen-directed and the grassroots is awesome. They wondered if we might be even stronger if we can give them some data, if we can give them some information so we can make a little more data-driven goals, little more data-driven decisions. We’re six points higher than the state average when it comes to excessive drinking, when I look at these numbers that is our Achilles heel.”

Osborne was referring to results from the 2014 County Health Ranking and Roadmaps, an ongoing project of the University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

For the past five years, researchers looked at 29 areas that affect health in every county of the U.S. Sitka was near the top of the 2014 list. Last year, sixth place. Lisa Sadleir-Hart, board president of the Sitka Local Foods Network, said a yearly meeting of health care professionals and residents contributed to the change.

“We moved from sixth ranked in the state to number two, and I can’t help but think that part of it has to do with our annual health summit where the community members gather, they select specific goals to try to improve the health of our community,” said Sadleir-Hart.

But Sitka’s County Health Rankings need to get even better if the community hopes to win the Culture of Health award — the $25,000 cash prize — next time.

“So here we are, the second healthiest community in Alaska, however, we have these four areas where we could do some improvement on. And the areas were injury deaths, and we’re above the state average there…preventable hospital stays, and that has to do with clinical care, and then uninsured – we’re actually three points higher at 25 percent – so one in four of our adults didn’t have health insurance when they put these numbers out – the state average is 22 percent. Not having health insurance is not good for your health,” said Osborne.

Osborne and Sitka Community Hospital health educator Patrick Williams say the most troubling result was the rate at which some Sitkans binge drink or drink to excess, defined as three or more alcoholic drinks a day.

Osborne said it was worth it to go through the lengthy and complex application process for the Culture of Health award because it helped focus attention on how Sitka residents can become healthier.

“And see if we can take this idea of citizen-driven health promotion – not what someone in Washington DC wants to do or somebody in Juneau, but what people here want to do. And the thing that’s exciting for me, apart from the prize, is just what if we got to the point where every year, we would pick these two goals, and we would figure out a recipe that we could follow, that would help these two goals become reality?”

Osborne said he and his colleagues will reapply for the Culture of Health award in 2015.