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Drive Down Healthcare Costs By Driving Down Obesity

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In his remarks Tuesday night, President Obama repeatedly stressed the need to drive down healthcare costs to sustain economic growth and reduce the country's deficit. President Obama mentioned tackling the long-term problems that reside within Medicare and Medicaid and was questioned earlier as to why he has to this point not directly asked the American people for a particular sacrifice in order to improve the economy. While taking the time to outline ways in which the American people have already made and continue to make sacrifices, he missed out on the opportunity to ask for a sacrifice of time, energy, and our excess weight.

In 2007, the U.S. spent more on healthcare than any other nation in the world totaling $2.27 trillion, roughly 16% of our GDP. Healthcare costs in the U.S. are currently hovering around $7,000 per capita and by many estimates are expected to increase to $15,000 per capita by 2015. A majority of healthcare costs are related to preventable and reversible illnesses, many of which are related to weight and obesity: our weight isn't just slowing us down out on the track it's hurting our economy and our wallets. In 1994, the obesity percentage (people with a BMI of at least 30) by state in this country ranged between 10-19%, with 34 states below 15%, by 2007 only Colorado maintained an obesity percentage below 20%. Current statistics place the national obesity rate at 1/3 of the population. Slightly more than another 1/3 of the country is overweight (a BMI between 27-29) with little to no fluctuation across age groups. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of numerous costly illnesses and conditions such as coronary heart disease (which claims more lives per year in the U.S. than the next 7 leading causes of death combined), type-2 diabetes, cancer, heart attacks, and strokes.

Over the last two decades, the debate over who should pay for healthcare has raged, while as a society we have become more overweight and sedentary than we have ever been before. Remarkable research and progress has been made during this time in medicine, the human body, and health, and yet we are literally eating away at our wallets and our lives without a second thought. Rush Limbaugh rails against universal healthcare as socialism, but where is the money from the insurance company coming from when he inevitably has a heart attack? Michael Moore lambastes private health insurance as unaffordable, but does he realize he is driving up the cost? Insurance companies work based upon the principal that the premiums of the healthy fund the treatment of the sick, in the same way that the auto insurance premiums of drivers who have never been in an accident pay for the insurance claims when a car is totaled. The system is set up as a bet that there will be more premiums coming in from people that are unlikely to be sick than there is money being paid out in claims to care for the sick. Charging higher premiums for those that are most likely to get sick and rejecting applications based upon health exams are the means with which the insurance companies try to hedge their bets. As more and more amongst the population become unhealthy, a larger amount of the money from premiums is paid out at the same time as the pool of incoming, healthy premiums shrinks. This causes the insurance prices to rise for everybody including for blanket coverage at companies with health benefits. The pool is further drained by cases where the illness could have been stopped in its early stages, but the doctor's office was avoided for as long as possible. This does not excuse insurance companies from denying legitimate claims and there are serious institutional changes to make healthcare more affordable and accessible to all, which must be addressed. However, we have a responsibility, if not to each other, than to our families and ourselves to live healthier lives.

It is a long and hard battle that requires a lifestyle change. There is no quick fix, let alone one that comes in a pill that has not been approved by the FDA. We can remove transfats from within our borders and make a donut shop display calories alongside prices, but until we make a commitment to live healthier lives, we will only sink further into the deep fryer. I'm not asking you to drop everything and suddenly become Michael Phelps, instead, consider taking steps to become even slightly healthier: lose those five pounds you promised yourself you would at New Year's, take the stairs instead of the elevator on your way to work, go for a 30 minute bike ride with the kids, don't use as much ranch dressing on your salad. After that, see if you feel better, chances are you will, and you will want to keep at it, and in the long run, we will all save some money.

Over the last year, I co-produced a half-hour documentary, entitled SickCare, that elaborates on this issue and the benefits that leading a healthier life brings. For more information or to receive a copy of the documentary, please email sickcare@gmail.com, website coming soon.

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