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Published: Saturday, 3/17/2007

State of a fat state

GOV. Ted Strickland's proposal to provide health-insurance coverage for every Ohioan under 21 is admirable, but our new governor could create an even healthier population at less cost with a far-reaching push for preventive medicine.

Heading off health problems before they develop into dangerous and deadly ailments that are expensive to treat is the essence of preventive medicine, one of 24 recognized medical specialties but one often overlooked in the health-care debate.

The painful truth is that health care will not be affordable in the future without a commitment to illness prevention by government, especially if so many Americans continue to have such little regard for their own well being.

Indeed, the greatest portion of today's wildly inflated health-care costs goes to treating the sickest people, when much of what ails them is essentially self-inflicted abuse, caused by lack of exercise, diets rich in junk food, and other lifestyle choices that lead inevitably to an out of shape, unhealthy population.

We remember the 2004 Academy Award-nominated documentary film, "Super Size Me," and the devastating harm to the health of producer and "star" Morgan Spurlock, who ate McDonald's food every day for a month. He gained 24 pounds and severely damaged his liver.

Let's face it, Ohio is unquestionably a fat state. A study by the Health Policy Institute of Ohio in 2005 pointed out that while the prevalence of overweight Ohioans has remained steady at about 35 percent since 1990, the rate of obesity has doubled.

With 24 percent of its residents weighing in as obese, Ohio carries the dubious distinction as the 13th fattest state. Nearly 14 percent of our high school students are overweight, fourth highest in the nation.

What an embarrassing achievement. And what an expensive one. More than 6 percent of Ohio's total medical expenditures each year - $3.3 billion - goes to treating obesity-related maladies, according to the same report. About half of this expense is financed directly by taxpayers through the Medicaid and Medicare programs.

Ensuring that Ohio children have health-care coverage might be one way to ease these pressures, but that approach ignores the bigger picture. It only perpetuates a continuing reliance on reactive medicine - treating the consequences of unhealthy lifestyles at great expense rather than preventing them in the first place.

Reactive medicine always gets the greatest share of health-care resources because there's enormous profit to be made when people get sick. Conversely, the individual who invests in his own health and manages to avoid cancer, heart trouble, or preventable Type II diabetes, means little or no profit to the health-care industrial complex.

Simply put, good health trumps the bottom line. Governor Strickland should immediately appoint a blue-ribbon advisory commission whose job it would be to consider and recommend specific policies his administration and this state can take to prevent future illness rather than simply rely on expensive care after the fact.

Potential policy changes could be as simple as making regular exercise a part of every child's life by bringing back recess in public schools or as controversial as taxing junk food to discourage consumption.

Such a commission, comprised of experts in the field, represents Ohio's best chance to eliminate our historic indifference toward prevention.



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