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"Changing Behavior will Lower Health Care Costs" by Susan Servais

With many of the societal problems we've conquered, from littering to smoking, the solution really came down to changing our collective individual behavior.

The same may be true for the health care challenges facing Massachusetts today.

Childhood obesity has become epidemic, one being attacked from several different angles. But the most effective ones — and here is the good news — may be the ones that cost the least amount of money.

The Governor proposed a workplace provision as part of the obesity initiative he launched this week. It didn't get most of the attention. It won't generate the most controversy. But it may be the most far-reaching measure of all. What better place to educate people about nutrition, exercise and other healthy lifestyle choices than the workplace, where most of us get our health insurance and spend most of our waking hours?

The Department of Public Health has developed a toolkit to help employers promote wellness to their employees and their families. EMC is an example of a company that has launched a similar program, which has saved it $190 million in health care cost avoidance since 2004. We can attest that there is a great desire among businesses to have access to these tools.

There is one more place we should focus — schools. It's time to pass the school nutrition bill, which would ban high-fat, high-sugar snacks and soft drinks from school vending machines. This blog posting is making the case for personal responsibility, and libertarians will say that in taking away that unhealthy food and drink choice, we are allowing people to shirk that responsibility. But kids aren't qualified to make those choices for themselves; that's why they're kids. Furthermore, we can't expect them to make good choices if we are dangling the bad ones in front of their noses.

Everyone reading this blog is probably sophisticated about health care. But if we are really going to make a difference — if we are going to reverse ever-rising health care costs and stem, for example, our obesity academic — we need to educate everyone. Schools and the workplace are the best place to start.

Our health care challenges are not going to shrink just because budgets are. Increasingly, we'll need to be creative to come up with effective but inexpensive solutions. Promoting healthy behavior in schools and the workplace is among them.

Susan H. Servais
Executive Director, Massachusetts Health Council

This program aired on January 10, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

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