By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
Calling U.S. health costs a massive drain on the economy, Gov. John Hickenlooper on Tuesday endorsed bold moves to fight poor health like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s war on super-sized sugary drinks.
Hickenlooper spoke Wednesday to an international conference of wellness experts gathered from more than 40 countries at the Aspen Institute for The Global Spa & Wellness Summit.
“If you listen to that hum in the distance, sometimes you think that’s the ventilation system, but really that sucking noise is the drain on our economy from the health care system. I probably shouldn’t say that. I’m going to get in big trouble,” Hickenlooper said.
While conceding that he’s reluctant to mandate healthier behavior, Hickenlooper said he sees few other options to fight the costly obesity epidemic.
“You run the risk if you’re in elected office of saying we need to all do this and pull together and take care of ourselves. That’s allegedly one step away from the nanny state,” Hickenlooper said.
“And yet, I’m not sure what else is going to happen. Right? I don’t see any other way.
“Every atom of my being resists this notion of some of the things that Mayor Bloomberg was trying to push in New York around these large helpings of super sweetened soft drinks. And yet, if we don’t begin looking at certain things like that, the costs are going to be enormous,” the Colorado governor said.
Hickenlooper didn’t elaborate on whether he’ll pursue bans on large serving sizes of sugar-sweetened beverages or whether he’d support soda taxes to fund better health. But, he did endorse ideas ranging from expanding school physical education and recess for children to promoting more bicycle commuting. He also said low-income families need easier, healthier options to feed their families and consistent medical homes so they can get the preventive health care they need.
Even if the U.S. Supreme Court invalidates the Affordable Care Act later this month, Hickenlooper said states like Colorado, Vermont, Oregon and Massachusetts have to lead the nation as “laboratories” to change the health care system by forcing down costs, improving care and spurring healthier lifestyles to prevent people from needing expensive health care.
Embracing the once pejorative term “Obamacare,” Hickenlooper said every city, county and state must push to cut health costs, which hover at about $8,000 per person per year.
In Colorado alone, obesity and related illnesses are costing the state about $1.6 billion a year, Hickenlooper said.
When states like Colorado have to think twice about spending $8 million a year for a pilot program to improve teaching or can’t afford a $60 million backlog on long-delayed road and bridge projects, Hickenlooper said policy experts have no choice but to tackle the obesity epidemic and other costly health problems.
Hickenlooper said he will introduce a broad agenda within the next six months to transform Colorado from the leanest state in the country to the healthiest place in the nation.
He said he has received the green light from U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, to receive any necessary waivers from federal law if Colorado can find a better way to reform the health system and cut costs while also providing access to everyone.
“You lay out a comprehensive, integrated plan by which you can dramatically expand coverage, significantly improve outcomes and improve coverage in a way that control costs and we’ll give you every waiver you need,” Hickenlooper said Sebelius told him during a recent dinner in Washington.
Driving down costs will require changes in lifestyles and “intercepting behaviors in childhood” like unhealthy eating and lack of movement that are causing a massive spike in child obesity and corresponding illnesses.
Hickenlooper applauded the move to bring more recess time and physical education classes back to schools. He said he’s convinced by research showing students will perform better in school if they also move more.
He also saluted communities like Aspen that have invested in walking paths and biking trails that provide “portals to a much more active and vital lifestyle.” But, the state can’t take credit for any big programs that help Coloradans improve their fitness levels.
Rather, Colorado has simply been lucky because it attracts young, fit people who love outdoor recreation.
“We are the leanest state in America…but before someone gets injured clapping themselves on the back, that’s not because of any programs in Colorado. It’s because so many young, outdoors-oriented people are attracted to living in Colorado,” Hickenlooper said.
The governor admitted to an audience of health and fitness diehards that even he struggles to stay fit and doesn’t love exercising. While he says he’s always been skinny, Hickenlooper says he’s developed a potbelly over the last four years.
“How much fun is it to sit on a treadmill walking or ride a bike in a room because you’ve got too much work to do. I don’t know about you guys. Maybe you guys find that engaging. I think even jogging through a park is like going to see a dentist. For me, it’s incredibly boring. I understand how incredibly important it is. We’ve got to get that awareness to everybody, or else,” Hickenlooper said.
Ultimately, Hickenlooper believes there’s a powerful link between a healthy economy, healthy people and ability to “pursue happiness.” Americans must find a way to market good health.
“Those countries with the best health care systems are also the ones that have the most integrated approach to people’s pursuit of happiness and that includes well-being,” Hickenlooper said. “If you’re overweight, you’re never going to be as happy as somebody who’s in shape.”
“Over the next 10 years, if we’ve got any hope, we have to be much bolder in how we deal with these issues of lifestyle.”