Saturday, July 26, 2008

Subsidizing a Healthier Nation

If you've been around long enough, you know I feel strongly about how bad America is about handling its waistline. My conservative readers are quick to remind me that we live in a free country with freedom of choice, that the citizenry always knows best how to manage their own life, and that government has no place in telling its citizens what to do.

And sure, that's a great theory, and true for a lot of things. Yet for weight control, I categorically disagree. Based on results—i.e., our shameful epidemic of obesity—Americans do not know how to manage their own weight. Yes, it's a free society and people are welcome to shoot themselves in the head if they really want to... just don't expect me to pay for the gun.

The problem with obesity is the suffocating health care costs which follow it. Obviously, obesity is not the singular cause for diabetes, but it is a disproportionately large factor in causing diabetes. If you smoke, eat high cholesterol foods, and are overweight... your chances of getting cancer, a heart attack, or diabetes goes off the charts. So these factors, together, are contributing causes to higher health costs. Which means taxpayers are subsidizing suicidal lifestyle choices by its citizens. When did this start becoming acceptable???

If you have private health care, and your poor lifestyle choices land you in the hospital with million dollar health care fees, game on—I have no problem with that. But the moment you ask me to start paying for your lung cancer operation because you smoked 2 packs a day for 30 years, or your quadruple bypass operation from a lifetime of eating red meat, or your stomach-stapling operation to manage your diabetes because you've been guzzling 40 oz. tubs of diet coke... yeah, shocker: I've got a huuuuuge problem with that. Conservatives who scream about lower government spending should be ahead of me in line about this injustice... yet they harp instead about "freedom of choice". Well, we tried freedom of choice for food and look where that got us—an obesity epidemic.

Nobody likes being told what to do. I don't think a government program telling people what to eat or when to work out would ever work. However, I do think circumstances can be shaped to give people sharper motivations to make better choices. My personal favorite has been a tax on fatty foods, the revenue of which would subsidize healthier foods: Big Macs get more expensive and healthy sandwiches get rock bottom cheap (that way the poor aren't punished because they can still eat cheaply, albeit better). Another option is giving tax credits to companies offering fitness programs to their employees—the payoff is a healthier and happier workforce who live longer (read: pay more taxes) and become more productive.

Still not convinced something like that would be financially viable? One company in Nebraska has been doing it for 16 years, and with impressive results. Their program sponsors a fitness program, including massages, pre-shift stretching, and quarterly checkups measuring weight, body fat, and flexibility. The prize is a 3 day company-paid trip to climb a 14,000 foot peak in Colorado. Of the 565 employees, 103 have qualified, more than ever before. Not only are the employees more fit, but the company pays about half the regional average in health-care costs, which is a savings of $2 million.

Morale of the story? It's cheaper to have healthier employees. Wow. What a concept. Imagine if we grafted that mindset onto an entire nation? How much money do you think we might save? More importantly, how much healthier, and how much happier, would we all be?

'Wellness' a healthy investment for company
LINCOLN, Nebraska (CNN) -- Lincoln Industries looks like a typical blue-collar plant -- workers cutting, bending, plating and polishing steel for products such as motorcycle tailpipes and truck exhausts amid the din of machinery.

But the 565-employee Nebraska company is different.

Lincoln Industries has three full-time employees devoted to "wellness," and offers on-site massages and pre-shift stretching.

Most unusual of all: The company requires all employees to undergo quarterly checkups measuring weight, body fat and flexibility. It also conducts annual blood, vision and hearing tests.

"When you get the encouragement from somebody to help you with nutrition and to help with a more active lifestyle, it makes it easier to be able to attain a lifestyle that most people want to attain anyway," says Hank Orme, president of Lincoln Industries.

The program has been in place 16 years.

The company ranks workers on their fitness, from platinum, gold and silver down to "non-medal." To achieve platinum, they must reach fitness goals and be nonsmokers -- and the company offers smoking cessation classes.

For employees, reaching platinum means a three-day, company-paid trip each summer to climb a 14,000-foot peak in Colorado. This year, 103 qualified, the most ever. And 70 made the climb.

For the company, the payoff is significantly lower health-care costs. The company pays less than $4,000 per employee, about half the regional average and a savings of more than $2 million. That makes the $400,000 Lincoln Industries spends each year on wellness a bargain.

"The return on investment is extraordinary," Orme says.

The investment in "wellness" pays other dividends, according to Orme. He says fitter workers are more productive, have better morale and are safer. As evidence, he points to worker's compensation claims. Ongoing safety training and an increasingly fit workforce have pushed worker's comp costs down from $500,000 five years ago to less than $10,000 so far this year.

Seven years ago, shift leader Howard Tegtmeier was in the non-medal category. The 49-year-old smoked, drank, was overweight and took 12 pills a day to treat high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.

"I just made the decision it was time to change my life, and the wellness program showed me ways to do that," Tegtmeier says.

Tegtmeier says he no longer smokes or drinks. His weight is down from 230 to 180, thanks to diet and exercise. His cholesterol and blood pressure are also down, and he says he no longer needs medication.

Tonya Vyhlidal, Wellness and Life Enhancement director, says Lincoln Industries doesn't pressure workers who don't want to participate. But sooner or later, she says, the company's "culture" attracts most employees to live healthier lives.

The company sponsors races, helps with gym memberships or exercise equipment, offers healthy choices in the vending machines and hosts classes on health and nutrition.

"There's a way to engage everyone. Even those that are really resistant," Vyhlidal says, adding that she'll offer employees suggestions based on what makes them feel fulfilled: "Do you like to ride a bike? Ride a bike. Do you like to cook? You may need a different cookbook."

This month, Tegtmeier and 69 co-workers climbed Mount Bierstadt, a 14,060-foot mountain. All of them reached the summit. It was Tegtmeier's fourth climb with the company.

"The view up here is wonderful," he said. Link.

No comments: