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New coalition aims to improve residents’ health

Caitlin Yoshiko Buysse

In the wake of the national obesity epidemic — 73.7 percent of adults in the United States are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control — and the steady rise of chronic disease resulting from it, Massachusetts leaders have come together to tackle the problem head-on.

 Launched last week, a new partnership between the Boston Foundation and the New England Healthcare Institute called the “Healthy People/Healthy Economy” coalition brings together business, health care, civic, and nonprofit leaders to “catalyze a health revolution” in the Commonwealth.

 “This is a national problem with great potential for a local solution,” said Paul S. Grogan, president and CEO of the Boston Foundation and co-chair of the new coalition. “Our region’s record of accomplishment as a world center of medical innovation provides an example and a platform on which we can launch a new culture of public health and wellness.”

The immediate goals of the coalition include repealing the current state sales tax exemption on soft drinks — which could generate more that $50 million annually for health and wellness programs — in addition to expanding physical activity, increasing access to healthy foods in all neighborhoods, creating incentives for health and wellness, and encouraging citizen education on health issues.

 The new coalition grew out of the research findings and long-standing collaboration between the Boston Foundation and the New England Healthcare Institute.

In “Healthy People in a Healthy Economy: A Blueprint for Action in Massachusetts,” their most recent publication, the cooperating organizations report devastating findings about the Commonwealth’s health and economy.

 “In Massachusetts, 30 percent of our children and 58 percent of all residents are either overweight or obese, and the obesity rate has risen fully 8 percent in just eight years,” said Valerie Fleishman, executive director of the New England Healthcare Institute and co-chair of the coalition. “That has driven rates of Type 2 diabetes and stroke to sobering rates, with serious consequences for all of us.”

 The new report notes that among preventable chronic diseases, diabetes is one of the most threatening. In Massachusetts, self-reported cases of diabetes increased nearly 40 percent in the past decade, going beyond 6 percent of the total population in 2007. This increase is almost entirely due to Type 2 diabetes, found in both adults and, increasingly, adolescents.

 In addition, it highlights the impact of the economic recession on residents’ health. “As people lose their jobs or see their incomes decline, they find it more difficult to afford out-of-pocket medical costs and health insurance premiums — premiums that they are not mandated to pay in Massachusetts,” the report says. “As times get tight, people lose the means to eat healthfully and exercise regularly — while healthcare costs continue to climb.”

 “The impact is felt disproportionately by Greater Bostonians with lower incomes and by residents of color,” the report also notes. “In previous generations poverty was associated with under-nourished people, but research shows that in modern America there is a strong coincidence between poverty and obesity — an association the current recession will only exacerbate.”

 The combination of the recession and poor health has not just affected individual residents — it has affected the entire Commonwealth. For instance, the report cites one study claiming that diabetes alone costs the state $2.2 billion each year, a number that could triple by the year 2023 if current medical trends continue.

“Obesity-related expenditures cost Massachusetts $1.8 billion a year already, and overall spending on health care has topped $60 billion a year,” said Ranch Kimball, former CEO of the Joslin Diabetes Center and former Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Economic Development. “Freeing up even a fraction of the cost of health care will create new resources to address the compelling needs of the Commonwealth.”

 In light of these problems, the Healthy People/ Healthy Economy coalition sets its long-term goals as reducing rates of overweight, obesity, preventable chronic disease and health care costs. Benchmarks for success include more farmer’s markets, healthier school lunches, a reduction in soda consumption and the elimination of food deserts, neighborhoods with little access to fresh and healthy food.

 Benchmarks also include increased employee health promotion programs, better menu labeling in restaurants and Body Mass Index screening and reporting. To report on these benchmarks, the Healthy People/Healthy Economy will release an annual scorecard.

 “What we’re really talking about today is changing the conditions of people’s lives and public health writ large,” said John Auerbach, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health at the coalition’s launch event last week. “We are at a turning point, with the opportunity to develop a critical mass of well-coordinated activities.”

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