- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 19, 2005

Health insurers and the federal government are prodding Americans to exercise more, and doing it by promoting voluntary fitness programs in businesses and federal agencies.

Several BlueCross BlueShield health plans, with government agencies, this week started a 10-week pilot program that designs a walking plan and tracks the progress of participants.

The program, “WalkingWorks,” encourages employees and their families to incorporate more walking during their workday or after hours at the company’s discretion.

Participants are urged to briskly walk daily at least 10,000 steps, or roughly five miles. Federal health guidelines advise Americans to exercise 30 minutes at least five times a week.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the federal health agency that has been pushing healthy lifestyle initiatives in the past few months, teamed up with Owings Mills, Md., health insurer CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield to offer the program.

So far, about 2,400 employees at the agency’s two offices in Washington and Rockville have joined. A similar initiative has been offered for 5,000 Senate and House workers on Capitol Hill for the past three years.

Potential expansion of the program to more businesses will be based on the results of the pilot program.

BlueCross BlueShield plans also are partnering with Nissan North America Inc. and Erie County, N.Y., to provide the program for the auto manufacturer’s Tennessee employees and the New York county government’s workers.

Companies are adding such programs because they are another method to cut down on health care costs, health officials said. Rising health care costs have become unsustainable for corporate giants such as General Motors Corp. and many small businesses nationwide.

“Research indicates that the U.S. could save $77 billion in direct health care spending if all Americans just got active,” U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Richard H. Carmona said.

That savings equals about $1,000 per American family each year, Dr. Carmona said at a Capitol Hill press conference introducing the fitness program.

But having a workplace fitness program will not alone bring down health care spending, said Michael Cannon with the Cato Institute, a Washington free-market think tank.

“I think people would be more accepting of going to the gym regularly if they were accountable for more of their health care costs,” said Mr. Cannon, director for health policy studies at the think tank.

The Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, the nonprofit arm of the BlueCross BlueShield plans, released a report Wednesday that found 62 percent of employed Americans said they were not getting enough exercise to maintain good health.

New drug progresses

• Bethesda pharmaceutical company Sucampo Pharmaceuticals Inc. this week started Phase 3 clinical trials for its new drug, lubiprostone, which would be used to treat patients with constipation-predominant irritable bowel syndrome.

Phase 3 trials, which are the last conducted before a drug is approved by the Food and Drug Administration, test a drug’s safety and efficacy on human patients. Sucampo plans to conduct two trials that will each examine more than 500 patients for 12 weeks.

“Health Care” runs Fridays. Call Marguerite Higgins at 202/636-4892 or e-mail her at [email protected]washingtontimes.com.

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