News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

December 29, 2013

GUEST EDITORIAL: State needs to more aggressively confront Hoosiers’ health

INDIANAPOLIS — The abysmal condition of Hoosiers’ overall health is a statewide embarrassment, one that ought to prompt Gov. Mike Pence and other state leaders to take stronger action to change long-term trends.

How out of shape and sickly are we? Indiana ranks a lowly 41st in the nation again this year in the United Health Foundation’s annual rankings of states’ overall health. We’re stuck in the same bad spot as last year in the rankings, and the only thing more disturbing than the low marks is the fact that no one is the least bit surprised by such discouraging data.

Hoosiers have known for a long time that Indiana’s health trends are among the worst in the nation. Yet, we still haven’t done nearly enough as a state to change that reality.

It’s not just the overall ranking that is low. Indiana is in the bottom 10 in the nation in obesity, diabetes, smoking, cancer deaths, air pollution, infant mortality, child immunization and heart disease. In fact, of the 53 individual measurements in the United Health report, Indiana ranks among the bottom half of states in 42 categories.

Those facts should set off alarms in the governor’s office and the rest of the Statehouse. That’s foremost because the poor health measures translate into a lower quality of life for millions of Hoosiers.

But it’s also because economic development suffers (workers’ health problems reduce productivity and increase employers’ health insurance costs). That means fewer jobs and smaller paychecks in the state to go along with our poor health.

What can the state do to turn things around? Part of the answer is to double down on addressing two other core needs — education and income growth. There’s strong evidence that better-educated and higher-paid people tend to take better care of their health. An aggressive state government role is needed to improve health measurements, but the more Hoosiers who have the knowledge and the financial ability to take care of their own needs the better for everyone.

The Pence administration, with State Health Commissioner Dr. William VanNess in the lead, has emphasized reducing obesity, cutting smoking rates and improving the infant mortality rate. Those are certainly the right priorities, but the scale of the efforts, from state government as well as community organizations, needs to be ramped up.

There also needs to be a rethinking of how the state tries to address the population’s health needs. For instance, a lot of money has been invested in the past in public service campaigns aimed at reducing smoking and promoting exercise. A hard look at the effectiveness of such efforts is needed to ensure that limited resources are used where they’re most effective.

The governor and legislators also need to dispassionately assess how state laws and policies affect Hoosiers’ health. For example, Indiana’s tax on cigarettes is well below the national average ($1.53 across all states vs. $0.995 here). Research indicates a connection between higher cigarette taxes and reduced smoking rates.

And more revenue from cigarette taxes could be used to expand the Healthy Indiana Plan. Former Gov. Mitch Daniels launched the health insurance plan for low-income residents in 2007 on the back of a 44-cent per pack increase in the cigarette tax. Nearly seven years later, it’s time to revisit that approach.

Such ideas at least need to be a part of the discussion about how to change our health trends. As it stands, far too many Hoosiers are suffering from illnesses that are entirely preventable. Far too many lives are lost prematurely. And we’ve been far too complacent as a state about changing those facts.

— The Indianapolis Star

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