Colorado Health Report Card: Obesity costs nearly $1 billion a year

Posted by Katie Kerwin McCrimmon on

A report by RMPBS partner, Health Policy Solutions

For other stories from Health Policy Solutions and additional news, visit RMPBS Reports.

By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon

Colorado’s health deficits are costing the state in jobs, lost productivity and nearly a billion dollars a year in medical costs for obesity alone, according to 2010 Colorado Health Report Card.

“If you don’t think health is a shared value, think again,’’ said Anne Warhover, president and CEO of the Colorado Health Foundation, which grades the state’s performance on 38 health indicators every year in conjunction with the Colorado Health Institute.“It’s certainly costing us. We’re spending $874 million a year to take care of the obese people in this state,” Warhover said.

Results from the 2010 Colorado Health Report Card. (Click on image to enlarge.)

Results from the 2010 Colorado Health Report Card.

Since 2006, the percentage of obese people in Colorado has surpassed those who smoke, meaning that policymakers must adapt to a growing and costly health epidemic.

The Report Card underscores the direct link between a healthy state and a healthy economy.

“If the state can reduce Colorado’s obesity rate to 1998 levels, we would see nearly $27 billion in economic savings by 2023,” said Michele Lueck, president of the Health Institute, which compiles the research and data for the Report Card.

Children are faring especially poorly in Colorado. The Report Card gives Colorado a D+ for “healthy children,” while programs benefiting infants don’t score much better. Colorado’s “healthy beginnings” grade hovers at a C. 

The most striking result of the 2010 report card is that Colorado’s child obesity rate is now the second fastest growing rate in the nation. (Read more in an earlier Solutions story.) Warhover said the spiking obesity rate among children is the least known health fact among the general public in the state. Colorado’s rank for childhood obesity dropped from third best in the country in 2003 to 23rd in 2007 with 14 percent of Colorado children now classified as obese.

Child poverty also has risen at an alarming rate. According to the Colorado Children’s Campaign, between 2000 and 2009, the number of children living in poverty more than doubled, rising faster than any other state in the nation.

Immunization rates for infants and toddlers also dropped from nearly 80 percent to 65 percent in 2009. The drop may be a result of a shortage of Hib vaccine. But, it may also be related to cost.

While Colorado’s adults remain the leanest in the nation, policy experts worry that fit, outdoorsy adults will ignore the fast-exploding obesity rise among young people.

“We call this the Colorado paradox,’’ Warhover said. “We import a lot of healthy, educated people…Yet we’re not growing our own.”

Colorado is coping with paradoxes on other fronts as well. While the state performs well on many measures for adult health, our health insurance premiums are disproportionately high. Colorado ranks 26th in the nation for premiums.

“We still don’t have an answer on why our health insurance rates are not cheaper,” said Tom Clark executive vice president for the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp. and the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Clark spoke during a Monday roundtable discussion on the economics of health problems. Clark said he began studying health statistics when employers started asking him about how healthy Colorado’s communities were.

One prospective employer asked for county-by-county obesity rates. Years ago, they didn’t exist. And at first Clark thought the information wouldn’t be relevant to business. Then, he learned there was a powerful correlation between a healthy workforce and cost savings.

“Why did we care? Simple. Productivity,’’ Clark said.

Child obesity rates on the rise in Colorado.


Child obesity in Colorado by race and ethnicity.


A healthy workforce and healthy children lead to reduced absenteeism, which in turn makes Colorado more appealing to employers who can bring jobs, Clark said.

The 2010 Report Card boasted better news for adults. For healthy aging, Colorado scored an A-. Colorado’s older adults are active and healthy. The state ranks number one in the country for rates of physical activity among adults.

Colorado adolescents are also improving. Smoking rates have declined from nearly 27 percent in 2001 to just under 18 percent in 2009. Tobacco tax increases helped drive down cigarette usage among price-sensitive teens. Colorado ranks No. 1 in the country for adolescents who eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables and also ranks No. 1 for the lowest percentage of adolescents who reported being sexually active in the previous three months.

“When it comes to health, the stakes are high and even higher when you consider that good health is inextricably linked to Colorado’s economic success,” Warhover said.

“When we look at our kids, it’s like an annuity. If we can prevent illness among children, there’s a payback year after year after year after year.”

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