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Feature: A healthier Minnesota

Published (2/4/2011)
By Patty Ostberg
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House and Senate legislators and staff are competing in a “Biggest Loser” challenge. Some exercisers use the underground Capitol Complex tunnel system to get in their daily dose of activity. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)Minnesota House and Senate members and staff are entering into a voluntary weight-loss competition they hope will encourage all Minnesotans to adopt a healthier lifestyle. Encouraging statewide lifestyle changes falls in the footsteps of Minnesota’s Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP) that was signed into law in 2008.

Health Commissioner Dr. Edward Ehlinger told the House Health and Human Services Reform Committee

Jan. 25 the $47 million initiative is based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Steps Program. From 2003 to 2009, 40 community programs were implemented to reduce obesity, diabetes, asthma and other health risks.

“(The CDC’s program) has shown to be effective in ways of addressing chronic illnesses and changing behaviors. Minnesota is the only model in the country doing the program, and has an economic model that shows you can save money,” Ehlinger said.

Assistant Health Commissioner Craig Acomb said the state was looking at

“9 to 10 percent annual increases in health care costs” before SHIP launched last year.

Grants have been awarded to

53 community health boards that cover all

87 counties and eight tribal governments. Local control and decision making has proven to be a successful part of the program, said Acomb.

Even though $47 million sounds like a significant investment, it’s only $3.83 per person that we’re investing in the health of individuals here in Minnesota, Acomb said. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. … We believe that this investment, based on the research and data, is going to produce significant savings and a healthier population.”

Rep. Thomas Huntley (DFL-Duluth) said the initiative came from the governor’s 2008 Health Care Transformation Task Force. If the Legislature had implemented all task force recommendations it “would have saved eventually 20 percent in health care costs, and half of that due to public health activities,” he said.

“Big business really understands the importance of healthy behavior of their employees, and they put a lot of money into it. If they’re putting money into it you can bet that they know it pays off in the long run,” Huntley added.

Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen (R-Glencoe) said while the goals of the initiative are “laudable,” he questioned the government’s role. “Government tends to be the most expensive and inefficient way to deliver any product or service,” he said, adding that sometimes results don’t grow as fast as costs.

“A big part of that program is the measurement of the results,” Huntley responded. “We’re not just giving them money, they have to show what they are doing works.”

Rep. Steve Gottwalt (R-St. Cloud) said one of the unique and strong aspects of the SHIP program is the partnering with community-based initiatives and businesses. “This is not just a state program — that was very intentional.” Grassroots efforts tend to be more sustainable and have better participation rates, he added.

“We rank as one of the healthiest states, and I hope that we can continue to maintain that healthy status and improve it,” Ehlinger said. “Public health is one of the best investments we could ever make.”

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