Healthier workforce would benefit state

GREATER FORT WAYNE BUSINESS WEEKLY

When you think of an attractive business climate, you might consider a friendly tax environment, low energy costs, property costs and a skilled workforce.

But just how healthy is that skilled workforce? That can be a game changer.

“It’s not a No. 1 site selection criteria, but it is enough to make a difference,” Kevin Brinegar, Indiana Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, said during the regional forum on “Indiana Vision 2025” in July.

Particularly, at a time when health care costs continue to increase by double-digit percentages, a healthy workforce can contribute significantly to a healthy bottom line.

In terms of smoking, Indiana ranks 39th out of the 50 states. Meaning, having 20.6 percent of Hoosiers who smoke is quite high relative to the rest of the nation.

The rate is improving. In 2011, Indiana ranked 45th with 25.6 percent of adults over 18 smoking.

But smokers cost a lot of money when it comes to health care.

Indiana Medicaid members who smoke, between the ages of 18 to 64, cost the state $540 million, according to a study released in April by the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation.

The monthly health care expenditures for those smokers relative to nonsmokers on Medicaid are 51.4 percent higher at $904.61 a month per person compared to $597.58 for nonsmokers.

To combat the extra cost a smoker likely brings to a company’s health care expense, the Indiana Chamber is proposing higher taxes on cigarettes, raising the legal smoking age to 21 and repealing the Smoker’s Bill of Rights, a 1991 state law that protects smokers from being refused employment and being charged higher premiums for health insurance.

A repeal of the protections for smokers was introduced during the most recent state legislative session this spring. The bill passed the House, 54-38, but didn’t make it out of a Senate committee.

According to the American Lung Association, Indiana is one of 29 states and the District of Columbia that have laws in effect elevating smokers to a protected class. The association noted that it does not support such laws.

However, not hiring an individual because of a legal lifestyle choice can be considered discrimination, a term of which most employers are wary.

While the debate over whether employers should foot the bill for a bad habit continues, the fact that we, as Hoosiers, are not very healthy overall remains an issue.

Indiana has an obesity rate of 31.3 percent, placing Indiana 36th in the nation. While this is an improvement from previous annual rankings, our percentage has not budged much, meaning other states have become more obese.

We don’t have an immediate solution for Hoosier health issues, but we do support the business community taking action to address these issues. A healthier workforce not only will benefit companies’ health care expenditures, it also would result in a community with fewer preventable illnesses. That’s a win-win.