November 13, 2008

Healthy Living

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

Whether it be local or nationwide problems, there is often a tendency to look only to government for solutions.  Many feel that federal policy changes are the only means to confront major societal issues. In doing so, they often overlook the practical solutions available right here at home. Case in point, look at the ongoing debate about healthcare in Wisconsin.

Like the rest of America, Wisconsin’s healthcare expenses have skyrocketed in the past ten years.  In fact, our state’s healthcare spending has doubled in the past decade. As a nation, we spend more money on medical treatment than any other developed country in the world.  Yet, there are more than 45 million Americans currently without healthcare. The financial fallout from the millions of uninsured Americans shows up in every facet of our nation’s culture, including the rising bankruptcy landscape that has become our reality.

Some elements of the increasing costs aren’t necessarily bad.  As citizens, we understand that quality care is not cheap.  We expect our doctors to be world class, our facilities to be state of the art, and our research and development to be an industry leader.  As a result of those expectations, US hospitals and clinics provide the best care available and employ the most advanced technology on the market.  Therefore, I think most people, faced with life-threatening illnesses or major sicknesses, don’t mind these expenses.

All that said, it is still hard for most people to fathom that this justifies the unthinkable costs of healthcare expenses.  In fact, the more we peel back the layers of issue, we see there are dozens of factors contributing to escalating costs – like increased bureaucracy and greater liability for doctors and hospitals. Those are problems that the state can and, I think, should work to correct. They’re systemic shortcomings that can really only be corrected through policy solutions.

Policy changes take time to implement, though, and they don’t always have the effects intended. That’s been especially true in healthcare, where major political reforms have been slow-moving and have suffered from a variety of drawbacks.

A more proven means of effectively tackling rising healthcare costs has been to promote changes in unhealthy personal behaviors. Government might be able to increase the cost of a pack of cigarettes, for instance, but it’s still largely a personal choice whether or not to smoke. If government and family can work together to foster a culture dedicated to promoting healthy choices and preventive health care maintenance, they can have a much greater impact than either one could, alone.

That combined approach is especially important in dealing with Wisconsin’s issues obesity and related healthcare problems, which have been huge contributors to recent increases in medical costs. Since 1990, the obesity rate among Wisconsin adults has increased by 91%, so that 58% of us are now either overweight or obese. Worse still, a quarter of our high schoolers are already overweight or at risk of becoming overweight, suggesting that the problem could get worse before it gets better.

Understanding that there are many causes for obesity, it’s important that we address it from a number of angles.  Government can play a valuable part in the process. It can create incentives for preventing and managing obesity; it can implement an agenda to promote healthy living; and it can make healthy choices more accessible and affordable to families that otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to make them. That can mean everything from promoting physical education at schools, offering incentives in employee insurance plans that emphasize preventative care.

These changes won’t amount to much, though, unless neighborhoods and families get involved, too. It’s up to parents to turn off the TV and get moving, walking, and exercising.  Parents can make sure kids get healthy meals each day. Communities can promote things like recreational sports and active lifestyles. And it’s up to all of us to make sure we emphasize the benefits of healthy living – not just in what we say, but in what we do and how we act. Government does not make these choices; we do!  As families, neighborhoods, communities and a nation, we can do this.