Sunday, October 4, 2009

America’s health care costs are spiraling out of control largely because we are facing an epidemic of inactivity and obesity. Government didn’t cause this problem, and it can’t single-handedly solve it.

People need to put down the donut, get active and take more personal responsibility for their health. Preventive measures can stop physical problems before they start. That can save lives and money.

The facts are staggering: Sedentary jobs have increased 83 percent since 1950, while daily caloric intake has skyrocketed. Sixty-seven percent of American adults are overweight, and the costs associated with treating obesity have risen from $74 billion to $147 billion over the past decade alone.

Obesity is related to eight of the nine most debilitating preventable diseases - including heart disease, cancer and diabetes - and costs our country more than smoking or drinking.

The cure for this problem is to provide individual incentives for healthy behavior. This will reduce costs while cutting taxes. I believe it can be done on a bipartisan basis with public-private partnerships because both business and government have an interest in promoting a culture of personal responsibility and physical fitness.

Companies including Johnson & Johnson, Safeway, EMC and Whole Foods have pioneered programs that reward employees with lower health insurance premiums for meeting goals that include losing weight, stopping smoking or getting more exercise. This not only improves the quality of life for the people who choose to participate, it also has a positive impact on their bank accounts and their company’s bottom line.

President Obama has acknowledged the effectiveness of these initiatives, noting that such companies “have been able to hold their costs flat for their employees at a time when other companies are seeing double-digit inflation in their health care.” But in his speech to the American Medical Association, the president emphasized that “our federal government also has to step up its efforts to advance the cause of healthy living.”

This effort should attract bipartisan support in our too often divided health care debate because it builds on common sense to find common ground.

We know that exercise leads to happier, healthier lives. We also know it can reduce medical costs. That’s why three bipartisan bills that provide incentives for improved physical fitness should be included in any health care reform legislation.

The Workforce Health Improvement Program Act - sponsored in the Senate by conservative John Cornyn, Texas Republican, and liberal Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, and in the House by House Ways and Means member Rep. Ron Kind, Wisconsin Democrat - would preserve employers’ right to deduct the cost of providing off-site health-club benefits without the cost of this wellness benefit being considered additional income for employees.

Currently, employers that offer on-site health facilities are allowed to deduct those costs, but small businesses that offer employees deals at local health clubs are denied this benefit. This double standard leaves small businesses and their employees at a disadvantage.

Likewise, the Personal Health Investment Today Act (PHIT) would allow individuals to use up to $1,000 annually from their tax-favored accounts (such as flexible spending accounts and health savings accounts) to spend on physical fitness - whether it’s participating in team sports or joining a local health club.

Current laws allow these accounts to pay for doctor visits or prescription medication - but preventive measures are not broadly covered.

This doesn’t make sense at a time when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that people who work out twice a week for two years spend $1,250 less on health care annually than those who are less active.

Also, this reform should have special appeal to our aging population: Senior citizens who exercise at least eight times a month enjoy 33.6 percent lower monthly medical costs, prescriptions, doctor appointments and hospital care.

Finally, Congress should increase the amount that companies can reward employees who improve their health and physical fitness. Such incentives are capped at a 20 percent discount annually, but proposals included in early drafts of the health care bills would allow deductions of up to 50 percent - saving families more than $3,000 each year.

With these measures, Congress can enable corporate responsibility and personal responsibility at the same time, providing positive incentives rather than counterproductive punitive measures like New Jersey’s and Connecticut’s tax on health-club memberships.

There is another benefit as well - the power of a positive example. When children see their parents prioritize good health and physical fitness, it builds behaviors that will last a lifetime.

The bottom line is that by providing the right incentives to individuals, we can do well by doing good - we can save money and save lives at the same time. If obesity levels in the United States are brought back to just 1987 levels, our annual health care costs will decrease by $225 billion.

If overweight adults lost just 10 percent of their excess weight, their health care costs would be reduced by $2,200 to $5,300 per year. Motivating people to achieve these goals through individual incentives rather than government mandates advances the American tradition of personal responsibility.

Together, we can improve the quality of life for countless Americans while reducing health care costs for individuals, businesses and the government. It’s a win-win proposition that builds on a proven bit of wisdom from Benjamin Franklin - an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Alex Alimanestianu is the chief executive officer of Washington Sports Clubs.

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