Taking care of health, tax dollars
Research suggests ways to make people healthier and save tax dollars.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Sometimes the prevention of health-related problems can also be a way to save money in the long run. Being smart about health care and tax money can go together.
Here are three studies that suggest public-policy positions that could help us stay healthier and be safer all while having a positive effect on our collective pocketbook. Some of the research reinforces what should be common sense, and some calls attention to things we overlook.
Mental health keeps coming up as a public-safety issue. That’s been one part of the conversation about safety in downtown Seattle, that some of the unease is caused by the presence of people with apparently untreated mental illnesses. And it has been an issue in recent cases of mass shootings.
Of course, people who struggle with mental illnesses are more often at risk themselves than a risk to others, but either way, we don’t seem able to find comprehensive ways to deal with mental illness, especially in impoverished populations.
A study from Duke University caught my attention because it suggested an approach that lowers arrest rates and saves public money, while benefiting people who have severe mental illness.
The study, in the July issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, suggested that court-ordered, intensive outpatient treatment can be an effective alternative to involuntary hospitalization. It’s also better than jail time.
Researchers studied a New York program, “Assisted Outpatient Commitment,” and found it saved money and provided effective treatment. Something to keep in mind when we’re cutting budgets in our state.
Most states, including Washington, have outpatient-commitment laws, but the study found most were not used consistently, often because of budget issues.
Research in Britain suggests a way to raise money and improve health. Researchers at the universities of Oxford and Reading crunched numbers and estimated a 20 percent sales tax on sugary drinks would reduce the percentage of overweight or obese adults by more than 3 percent. That’s not a huge number, but it would reduce risks of diabetes, tooth decay and many other health problems. They suggest trying 20 percent as a start to see what the real-world effect would be. I’ll drink a glass of water to that.
And there is a suggestion about where best to use the health-care dollars we already have. Scientists from several top universities from Harvard to the University of Southern California, say delaying aging, essentially putting off some of the ailments that come with age, will yield better health and economic returns than investment in preventing or improving treatment of cancer and heart disease.
I do wish they’d gotten started on that earlier.
The number of Americans 65 and older is expected to more than double over the next 50 years, according to a report from USC on the analysis. The report quoted S. Jay Olshansky of the University of Illinois-Chicago: “This is a fundamentally new approach to public health that would attack the underlying risk factors for all fatal and disabling diseases.”
The study, published in “Health Affairs,” says a 51-year-old could expect to gain an extra year of life from major advances in treating cancer or heart disease, but two years from advances in delaying aging, taking that person a little further into his or her 80s — and those would be likely be more healthy years.
The researchers estimate delayed aging would mean 11.7 million more healthy adults over age 65 in 2060 than there would be without investment in achieving delayed aging. The savings for society would be huge, with fewer sick people and more productive people.
Of course it wouldn’t be fair to people who are sick now, to walk away from promising research on cancer, heart disease or other ailments, but it ought to be possible to shift some dollars to delaying aging, which is more proactive.
All of the studies point us toward being proactive, which can be a hard thing to do when budgets are tight. The studies are important because they give us, policy makers and voters, data that remind us getting ahead of problems is smarter for both our well-being and our wallets.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org
About Jerry Large
I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
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