GRAND RAPIDS — Behind the goodwill and attention Ernie Harwell generates as a spokesman for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan is a serious issue for health insurers and employers struggling with ever-rising health premiums: Our behavior is partly to blame for escalating costs.
At 85 years old, Harwell still walks two miles a day, as well as stretches and jumps rope to maintain his health. Eating right and exercising daily enables the legendary baseball broadcaster to remain active.
“I’m not a health nut but I’ve tried to take care of myself all my life,” said Harwell, who visited Grand Rapids Aug. 17 for a two-mile walk prior to the West Michigan Whitecaps game to kick off a year-long promotion by Blue Cross Blue Shield to encourage people to walk daily.
“I don’t believe in sitting around and twiddling my thumbs all day. We need to quit squawking and get out and walk,” Harwell said. “It’s easy. After you take the first step, it just falls into place. The main thing is to just tell yourself you’ve got to do it.”
In hiring Harwell as the public face of the promotion, the Blues is hoping people will take his message to heart and begin walking or exercising to improve their own health and quality of life — and possibly help to stem rising health care costs.
Recent research reports indicate that a lack of physical activity, and the resulting health problems, causes billions of dollars in costs annually to the health care system.
In Michigan, the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness, Health and Sports in May reported the results of a study that estimates the cost of physical inactivity by state residents at $8.9 billion annually. Under current trends, that cost will rise 42 percent to $12.65 billion by 2007.
Costs include direct and indirect medical care, worker’s compensation and lost productivity in the workplace.
More than 55 percent of the state’s residents, or 4.18 million people, do not meet the U.S. Surgeon General’s recommendation for 30 minutes of physical activity on five or more days a week, the report stated. If just one in 20 adults who fail to meet that guideline were to become physically active, it could result in the avoidance of $575 million in health care costs annually over the next four years, the council’s study found.
“The cost of physical inactivity in Michigan is huge,” the study stated. “Investments in the promotion and support of physically active lifestyles among Michigan residents have the potential of returning enormous dividends in terms of cost savings for illness and injury related to inactivity.”
Nationally, medical expenditures related to obesity and being overweight are as high as $93 billion, or 9.1 percent of all health care expenses in the U.S. — a figure that now rivals the costs of smoking, according to researchers writing in the May issue of Health Affairs, a national health care journal.
“The excess medical expenditures that result from treating obesity-related diseases are significant,” researchers Eric Finkelstein, Ian Fiebelkorn and Guijing Wang wrote.
Obesity is associated with several chronic diseases — diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and several forms of cancer among them. With obesity in the U.S. rising at an “alarming” rate, researchers concluded that there is now “clear motivation” among insurers and managed care providers to examine ways to address the situation, such as paying for weight-loss programs, as they do smoking cessation classes.
Since health care spending related to obesity and being overweight now rivals that of smoking, “it may be hard to justify the disparity between the many interventions that have been implemented to reduce smoking rates and the paucity of interventions aimed at reducing obesity rates,” Finkelstein, Fiebelkorn and Wang stated in the Health Affairs report.
For Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, simply getting people up and walking is the first step toward addressing the problem.
The year-long WalkingWorks promotion, spearheaded nationally by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, is one way for the Michigan Blues to begin trying to mitigate rising health care costs. Improving fitness can help a person avoid serious health problems in the future, “and that, in turn, can help keep health care costs affordable,” said Dale Robertson, vice president for the Blues in West Michigan.
“The cost of health care is of concern to everyone. We can all play a part in helping to control those costs,” Robertson said.
The Blues hopes to convince people to add 30 minutes or more of moderately-paced or brisk walking to their daily routine. Walking “is like adding water to a wilted flower,” said Dr. Thomas Simmer, chief medical officer for the Blues.
Beyond the promotion, the Blues is looking at other ways to raise awareness of the issue, particularly in the workplace, spokeswoman Helen Stojic said. The insurer, which covers 4.8 million people in Michigan, already offers discounts for subscribers to Weight Watchers.
Harwell would like to see employers take up the call to help employees stay or get healthy. Individuals also need to take up the cause themselves and commit to walking or some other form of exercise and to eating a healthy diet to improve their fitness and quality of life, he said.
“The onus is really on them,” Harwell said. “It’s a long-time, lifetime process. It’s not just a diet for a couple of weeks.”