A healthier state would save taxpayer dollars, improve Arkansans’ quality of life, and help with industrial recruitment, Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) said Wednesday (Oct. 14) in announcing a 10-year plan along with other members of the state’s health care and business communities.
Among Arkansas’ challenges is that it has the highest obesity rate in the country – 35.9% in 2014, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. According to a report released by the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, in 2012 34.2% of Arkansas adults were overweight and 34.5% were obese – nearly 760,000 adults – based on self-reported data, with measured numbers perhaps 50% higher. Among children, the rates were 16.8% overweight and 20.7% obese.
Healthy Active Arkansas includes nine priorities: healthier community design; nutritional standards in government, institutions and the private sector; nutritional standards in schools from early child care through college; physical education and activities in schools; healthy worksites; access to healthy foods; reducing sugary drink consumption; breastfeeding; and a marketing plan.
According to the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute report, obesity costs Arkansas $1.25 billion a year, almost 40% of that financed through Medicare and Medicaid. The report says reducing the average BMI of Arkansans by 5% would save $2 billion in the next 10 years.
“It’s an important issue to me because an unhealthy Arkansas is an expensive habit for the taxpayers,” said Hutchinson.
Hutchinson said he did not have specific policies such as tax credits to recommend to the Legislature, saying he preferred incentives and leadership rather than mandates. Healthy policies should be included in the work being done by the Health Reform Legislative Task Force, which is considering how to change the state’s Medicaid program.
A consortium led by the state’s surgeon general, Dr. Greg Bledsoe, will oversee the plan’s implementation. That consortium includes the Arkansas Department of Health, UAMS, the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, the Arkansas Minority Health Commission, Baptist Health and the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute. Hutchinson said the consortium could recommend legislation.
“I don’t think this is going to cost money. It should save money,” he said.
Hutchinson said he had participated in a bicycle ride in the Delta on Sunday, played basketball in Cuba and had his annual physical that day. He said the program is not meant to stigmatize people such as overweight schoolchildren.
Hutchinson said businesses should follow the program’s guidelines because it is in their self interest to do so.
As an example, Jayme Mayo, a physician assistant and wellness director for Nabholz Construction, said her self-insured company had saved more than $1 million a year in health costs over the past five years and saw a 4.5% decrease in premiums this past year after it created a program based on the areas where it was seeing the most claims: blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, tobacco and obesity. Employees and their spouses are screened and are awarded financial incentives based on the results of their health screenings. Along with Mayo, Nabholz employs a physician, a bilingual dietitian, a personal trainer, and a medical assistant to help improve employee health.
The plan had its beginnings in 2012, when Winthrop Rockefeller Institute staff members met with health researchers from UAMS and the University of Arkansas, according to the Institute’s report. Other entities such as the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement and the Arkansas Coalition for Obesity Prevention joined the effort, leading to the New Frontiers in Combating Obesity summit at the Institute in December 2013.