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Johnson and Reardon: Health Investment for Cities, Nation Is Smart

America spends an astonishing amount — at least $2.5 trillion — on health care each year, yet we aren’t as healthy as we could or should be.

For every dollar we spend on health care, less than a nickel goes toward policies and programs aimed at public health and prevention, such as community farmers’ markets and wellness initiatives that encourage healthy living for all ages. We need to shift the focus of the U.S. health care system from treating illness to creating an environment that is conducive to better health.

It has been said that politics makes strange bedfellows, and our unlikely pairing may be Exhibit A: the Republican mayor of Hernando, Miss., and the Democratic mayor of Wyandotte County, Kan. We may be 500 miles apart and have traveled different paths on this journey, but we both share a passion for helping those who live in our areas become healthier and more productive. As in most cities and towns across our nation, our residents fight tooth and nail to make ends meet. But we’ve both found that investing in health and prevention not only helps our friends’ and neighbors’ quality of life, it also gives our limited budgets the most bang for their buck.

We’re proud that the stories of Hernando and Wyandotte have been featured by County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, a program of the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that measures the health of virtually every county in the United States based on a variety of factors, from access to healthy food or opportunities for physical activity, to education and jobs. We have used that information to see precisely where our investments will get the highest rate of return.

Each county has a unique story. For instance, the rankings show that Mississippi’s DeSoto County, where Hernando is located, ranks first in the state for health, but Mississippi overall is one of the least healthy states in the nation. By contrast, the rankings show that Wyandotte County, which has experienced record-breaking economic development and is the state’s tourism capital, is near the bottom for health in Kansas despite also being home to world-renowned medical research facilities.

Two completely different rankings in two completely different places nevertheless inspired similar action. Hernando may be a health leader in Mississippi, but the data shows that 1 in 3 DeSoto County adults is obese and 1 in 4 smokes. In response, our team in Hernando established a comprehensive wellness program for our municipal workforce that includes free health screenings, a smoking cessation program and a fitness facility that we set up in some unused storage space in our community center — it’s not state-of-the-art, but it’s what we have.

Thanks to these efforts, Hernando’s health insurance costs dropped by 15 percent last year, which saved our city $130,000. With these savings, we were able to give our city employees a 2 percent raise.

In Wyandotte County, we viewed our low ranking as a wake-up call, and the eye-opening data provided an opportunity to start making healthy changes. Our team has worked closely with community leaders, educators, businesses, public health experts and others to tackle our community’s health problems.

Using tax incentives, we attracted the first new grocery stores to underserved areas of our county in nearly four decades. In addition, thanks to our new complete streets policy and additional federal funding we’ve received from Safe Routes to School, we’ve added new sidewalks and bike lanes along local roads.

Replicated on a national scale, these kinds of investments in health can yield significant dividends. Spending just $10 per person in programs aimed at smoking cessation, improved nutrition and better physical fitness could save the nation more than $16 billion a year, according to the Trust for America’s Health. The bottom line is that policies aimed at better health are a smart investment, regardless of where our counties rank.

As mayors, we can’t think of a better investment for a productive and vibrant community in which families and businesses can thrive. But we also know that we don’t have all the answers. The good news is there are innovative policies and programs being launched across the country. We’d like to hear what’s happening in your neck of the woods — to share your stories and swap ideas, please contact us at Together, we can start building a healthier, more productive America from coast to coast!

Chip Johnson is mayor of Hernando, Miss. Joe Reardon is mayor/CEO of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kan.

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