New coalition aims to improve residents' health

Caitlin Yoshiko Buysse | 12/7/2010, 8:49 p.m.

In the wake of the national obesity epidemic — 73.7 percent of adults in the United States are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control — and the steady rise of chronic disease resulting from it, Massachusetts leaders have come together to tackle the problem head-on.

 Launched last week, a new partnership between the Boston Foundation and the New England Healthcare Institute called the “Healthy People/Healthy Economy” coalition brings together business, health care, civic, and nonprofit leaders to “catalyze a health revolution” in the Commonwealth.

 “This is a national problem with great potential for a local solution,” said Paul S. Grogan, president and CEO of the Boston Foundation and co-chair of the new coalition. “Our region’s record of accomplishment as a world center of medical innovation provides an example and a platform on which we can launch a new culture of public health and wellness.”

The immediate goals of the coalition include repealing the current state sales tax exemption on soft drinks — which could generate more that $50 million annually for health and wellness programs — in addition to expanding physical activity, increasing access to healthy foods in all neighborhoods, creating incentives for health and wellness, and encouraging citizen education on health issues.

 The new coalition grew out of the research findings and long-standing collaboration between the Boston Foundation and the New England Healthcare Institute.

In “Healthy People in a Healthy Economy: A Blueprint for Action in Massachusetts,” their most recent publication, the cooperating organizations report devastating findings about the Commonwealth’s health and economy.

 “In Massachusetts, 30 percent of our children and 58 percent of all residents are either overweight or obese, and the obesity rate has risen fully 8 percent in just eight years,” said Valerie Fleishman, executive director of the New England Healthcare Institute and co-chair of the coalition. “That has driven rates of Type 2 diabetes and stroke to sobering rates, with serious consequences for all of us.”

 The new report notes that among preventable chronic diseases, diabetes is one of the most threatening. In Massachusetts, self-reported cases of diabetes increased nearly 40 percent in the past decade, going beyond 6 percent of the total population in 2007. This increase is almost entirely due to Type 2 diabetes, found in both adults and, increasingly, adolescents.

 In addition, it highlights the impact of the economic recession on residents’ health. “As people lose their jobs or see their incomes decline, they find it more difficult to afford out-of-pocket medical costs and health insurance premiums — premiums that they are not mandated to pay in Massachusetts,” the report says. “As times get tight, people lose the means to eat healthfully and exercise regularly — while healthcare costs continue to climb.”

 “The impact is felt disproportionately by Greater Bostonians with lower incomes and by residents of color,” the report also notes. “In previous generations poverty was associated with under-nourished people, but research shows that in modern America there is a strong coincidence between poverty and obesity — an association the current recession will only exacerbate.”