Expert: Healthy lifestyles can cut medical costs


RAPID CITY, S.D. – Health care costs could be cut substantially if Americans stopped smoking, stopped overeating and got in shape, a national expert told lawmakers from 11 Midwestern states on Tuesday.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that if Americans adopted such a healthy lifestyle, 80 percent of heart disease and stroke could be prevented, said Kenneth E. Thorpe, chairman of the Department of Health Policy and Management at Emory University. Diabetes and cancer also would be reduced dramatically, he said.

“Most of this is preventable,” Thorpe said during a discussion on health care programs.

Shelly Ten Napel of State Coverage Initiatives, a program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that helps states improve the availability and affordability of health insurance, said many states have taken steps to help more people get insurance.

Many low-income people will not have insurance without government subsidies, but better preventative health care will prevent more costly spending on serious illnesses, Ten Napel said. The cost of insurance premiums has more than doubled since 2000 for some families, which makes it more difficult for many to get insurance, she said.

The worst option is to avoid tackling the problem, Ten Napel said.

“If we do nothing, there’s going to be increasing costs and decreasing coverage rates,” she said.

Thorpe and Ten Napel addressed the annual Midwestern Legislative Conference of the Council of State Governments. Lawmakers from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin gathered at the four-day meeting. Also present were representatives from the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Ontario and Saskatchewan.

South Dakota Sen. Tom Dempster, chairman of the legislative organization, said such gatherings allow lawmakers from various states to share ideas on common problems. About 300 lawmakers showed up at the conference, with another 500 family members, lobbyists and others attending, Dempster said.

Ten Napel said states are looking for ways to reduce the number of uninsured people, improve health care and cut the costs of health care programs. The federal government also pays part of the costs of some programs, particularly Medicaid, which covers the medical costs of low-income people.

But Ten Napel said it’s up to states to lead the way in figuring out better ways to improve health care and insurance.

She said 35 percent of the population aged 19-64 was uninsured or underinsured in 2003.

In 2007, the figure had risen to 42 percent; about 14 percent in that age group had no insurance that year.

Health insurance premiums are rising much faster than most families’ incomes, Ten Napel said.

Thorpe said two-thirds of the increase in the nation’s spending on health care in the past two decades is due to increases in chronic diseases. Patients with chronic diseases, such as diabetes, account for 75 percent of health care spending, he said.

And the doubling of the percentage of Americans who are obese since 1987 is responsible for nearly 30 percent in the rise in health care spending, Thorpe said.

The system should be reformed by providing more care for patients in their homes, where nurses could monitor their blood pressure, weight management and other factors, he said.

States also should use standard forms and treatment practices that apply no matter whether private insurance or government programs are paying the bills, Thorpe said.

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