Health and the Economy Go Hand in Hand

Nov 2, 2011, 1:56 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

Is good health connected to our economic security? According to a new “Healthier Americans for a Healthier Economy" report by Trust for America’s Health, released yesterday at a Capitol Hill briefing co-sponsored by the Congressional Wellness Caucus, better health is a major driver for a healthier economy.

The report is a collection of stories from three states: Minnesota, Indiana and Texas; and three cities: San Diego, Nashville, Tenn. and even the far-flung Hernando, Miss. In each case employers and leaders from government and public health are figuring out together that improving health and productivity go hand in hand.

Take Hernando, a small bedroom community of 14,000 people just 20 miles south of Memphis,Tenn. Like many of its neighbors in Mississippi, it has its share of fast food, sedentary lifestyles and eating habits that aren’t as healthy as they should be. Mississippi is among the least healthy states in the nation with the highest rates of obesity and hypertension and among the highest for adult diabetes. But Hernando is in the midst of a makeover. Through the leadership of Mayor Chip Johnson, they’ve developed a comprehensive wellness program for their city workers. Workers who smoke signed a pledge to quit smoking during work and break hours. They’ll get the support they need. Screening is offered for high blood pressure and diabetes. Increasing physical activity is a priority. Johnson has taken this health mantra to the streets—literally. A Complete Streets Law requires that new road construction include sidewalk space for walkers and lanes for bicyclists. A farmer’s market was started to bring in fresh produce from 65 area farmers. The transformation is paying dividends. In the past year alone, Hernando has lowered health care costs by 15 percent—a savings of 130,000… and without cutting benefits.

Johnson’s motivation comes from both personal values—he rises early each morning to exercise, and he is commitment to the economic vitality of Hernando. Health has become a marketing tool to attract corporations to locate there. “When they make decisions, they look at health care costs,” said Johnson.

At the Washington briefing, Andrew Webber, President and CEO of the National Business Coalition on Health (NBCH) echoed Johnson’s theme and those in other stories in the report. Webber said improving employee and community health is a “business imperative.” NBCH has a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to strengthen ties between public health and NCBH’s 53 business coalitions representing 7,000 employees in all 50 states. “Health plays out locally,” said Webber, “it’s where the rubber meets the road.”

He gave the example of auto makers who located in South Carolina 20 years ago. Tax breaks were a primary incentive. But in a wish we knew then what we know now moment, the companies say they would have likely made a different decision had they known more about health status of community and role of health as a driver of costs.

Tom Mason, president of the Alliance for a Healthier Minnesota told the congressional staffers at the briefing that good health and good business should be viewed through a marketing lens. In Minnesota, employers and Alliance members like Target and Cargill have already seen the light. The Alliance recently polled 400 Minnesota manufacturers about their top concerns. “It wasn’t even close, health care costs were at the top even in the midst of a recession,” said Mason. Many employers already consider wellness programs as a way to lower costs.

Jim Marks, Senior Vice President and Health Group Director for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) noted that the evidence points to the health and cost benefits of both employer wellness programs and community prevention—like whether employees and their families live in a community that is smoke-free with safe streets, places for children to play, and access to affordable healthy foods. “There’s a strong and large body of evidence that tells us that prevention should be our starting point for better health and reducing costs,” added Marks. He noted a study recently published by the Urban Institute with funding from RWJF, which found that prevention can lower private insurance costs while reducing worker absenteeism due to illness. The economic impact of cutting the rate of chronic disease growth through prevention programs could save Medicare and Medicaid upwards of $50 billion per year by 2030.

“We don’t need more expensive treatment,” said Marks, "we need less disease.”

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.