Last month, Louisiana slipped from 49th to 50th in the America’s Health Rankings, the national survey compiled each year by United Health Foundation. Started 19 years ago, the state-by-state analysis is the longest-running of its kind, and it reveals much about both the physical condition we’re in and our willingness to do something about it.
The past two decades point to a disturbing trajectory in which the country—and its citizens—shell out trillions on health care and still struggle with expensive, preventable diseases.
The report analyzed 22 health care measures, including “determinants,” or factors that affect the health of a population, like the rate of smokers, and “outcomes,” or factors that have already occurred, like cancer deaths. The study states that the overall health of Americans failed to improve for the fourth consecutive year, a change from the 1990s, when it improved about 1.5% annually. The stagnation is chalked up to three issues: obesity, smoking and, that clarion call from the 2008 presidential election, the lack of health insurance for 46 million Americans.
Louisiana was bludgeoned for similar factors, including its rate of smokers [22.6%], its number of children in poverty [22.7%] and its deaths from cancer and heart disease [223.8 and 349.2 per 10,000, respectively].
Perhaps most disturbing was the grip obesity has on Louisiana. Despite warnings of its ill effects in recent years, the state’s rate rose between 2007 and 2008 and now rests at 30.7% of the population. Worse still, obesity in Louisiana has risen 150% since 1990, and while experts debate the reason, they vehemently agree that it leads to heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer, particularly endometrial, breast, colon and gallbladder.
What does this have to do with women and their finances? Plenty. Good health and good health care are among the best investments women can make in their financial futures. But it goes beyond New Year’s resolutions to shed a few pounds or queuing up for an annual mammogram. What’s also important is acting like a good consumer. Think for a minute. How much do you know about your health care policy, and can you identify what it costs? Most of us can pinpoint expenditures on tuition or groceries more readily than we can on health insurance.
If we did, we might think differently. We might act like the same smart shoppers we were during the holidays, fervently ferreting out the best deal on a Wii or an iPhone and ensuring these costly items are well cared for. This year, women’s resolutions should go beyond standard fare, and include not just weight loss or 5Ks, but extracting the most out of the health-related resources before you.
Here are some ideas:
Understand your policy. It might actually include free annual physicals, dental or eye exams, which are like money left on the table if not acted upon. On the flip side, your policy might restrict where your child gets his or her broken arm set, or only pay for mammograms if you’re 40 or older. There’s only one way to find out: read it.
Take advantage of a Flexible Spending Account. FSAs allow you to set aside a portion of your gross income [$2,500 for individuals and $5,000 for families] for certain expenses, including the cost of day care and unreimbursed medical expenses. You pay for these expenses as you normally do, then submit reimbursement. Savings comes from being able to pare down your income before being taxed. This is an easy benefit for employers to offer because it costs them little or nothing.
If you need one, look into a Health Savings Account. HSAs are tax-saving vehicles that allow you to sock away money for health care expenses. They are combined with a high deductible health plan that provides catastrophic coverage. This can be the right strategy for the self-employed.
Invest in a good pair of running shoes. Louisiana might be 50th in the America’s Health Rankings, but there are assets here that can be exploited for good health. Baton Rouge’s water is among the nation’s healthiest. The weather is mostly agreeable. And while we struggle with true connectivity, there are more opportunities to walk and run than ever. Experts say it’s more important to be steady than overly ambitious with exercise goals. Just lace ’em up.