BYERS: Stimulus for health care benefits should be lifestyle changes

Keywords Opinion / Viewpoint

"Stimulus" and "bailout" have become key words as the country has dealt with financial complexities that have plagued the last year or so. This money crisis is not much different from the issues employers deal with as they assess and manage the cost of employee benefits.

The rendering of "cash," whether to General Motors Corp. or to an employee-benefit package, amounts to little more than a Band-Aid. We must begin to look at different approaches to the problems we face.

The root of the problem of rising health care costs is the fact that we are a somewhat unhealthy citizenry that has adopted the mentality that better prescription drugs, advanced surgical techniques and government intervention will cure our ills and stop the bleeding. This is the Band-Aid we have all come to adopt, and the mentality forges ahead that, regardless of our health or our lifestyle, we will be bailed out.

Americans quickly accepted the concept of greater "risk-sharing" when it applied to insurance on automobiles and houses. Most of us have assumed a greater share of risk by using higher deductibles in exchange for lower premiums. We also understand and accept the risk concept of "smoker" and "non-smoker" used in life insurance ratings. But this concept has been a hard sell when applied to health care benefits.

We have to look at managing the real culprit that drives health care expenses–our own lifestyles. Want to reduce the cost of health care–either as an employer or an employee? Consider the following:

— Quit smoking. And don’t patronize establishments that allow it.

–Lose weight. Obesity is one of the leading causes of health care expenses–and this is particularly true in the Midwest.

— Rethink your diet. Insufficient vegetables and too many potato chips, soft drinks and over-large portions are killing you.

— Exercise. You don’t have to join a club, just do some basic stuff like walking.

— Get regular checkups and screening tests to catch early any problem that could have catastrophic consequences.

The cost and severity of our state of health is not going to change until we do. No amount of cost-shifting or federal assistance will stem this problem. Regardless of all our good efforts, we still have certain unexpected disease consequences that involve high dollars–that is why we have insurance. Nevertheless, we would be in a better position to deal with the catastrophic if we initiated practices that would slow the progression of disease and keep the expensive ones to a minimum.

Yes, we need a stimulus package directed at the very root of our health care crisis. We need to stimulate employers to put more focus on benefit programs that encourage good results. And employees must understand that they have a huge responsibility in this process–the stimulation for good health, longer and better aging, and more productive working years (which are becoming more and more necessary) cannot be achieved without acceptance of greater risk and better health practices.

There is no immediate fix. Wellness programs, without accountability, will not cause the habitual change we need. Ultimately, we all must accept the role played by individual choice. If gasoline prices rise exponentially, people are stimulated to seek more economical vehicles to drive; smoking in Indiana plummeted when the Legislature imposed a greater tax on cigarettes.

The real stimulus is not a bailout, and if we want change it must be individually motivated. Cultural and habitual changes are not easy; but it is clear that, for our own good health and longevity, we need to be stimulated.


Byers is a consultant with R.E. Sutton & Associates in Brownsburg and can be reached at

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