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As Workers' Health Costs Balloon, So Do Their Waistlines

The Census Bureau Tuesday reported a record number of Americans without health insurance: 47 million, an increase of more than 2 million. One of the major reasons for the jump, according to analysts and news reports, is that employers are shucking health insurance coverage, leaving workers to fend for themselves.

The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer examined the connection between escalating health costs and another troubling trend: adult obesity rates, which rose in 31 states last year, says a report by the Trust for America's Health.

Susan Dentzer, health correspondent for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, explained:

But what the connection is -- and some health economists have begun to look into this -- is we not only spend more to treat people who are obese because they have very costly conditions, very frequently diabetes, but that's been a real contributor to the rate of growth of spending. And, in fact, one analysis suggests that as much as 27 percent of increase in health spending from 1987 on has been due to the rising rate of obesity.

Both problems need fixing, but how?

National Statistics on Health Care Costs

Simply put, we need to trim our health care costs and slim our waistlines.

When it comes to health insurance, a good place to start is with a big-picture understanding of the issues, and particularly national statistics on health care costs. Dentzer explained that "Health insurance premiums are still rising about 7 percentage points a year; that's more than double workers' wages and more than double the rate of inflation." Health insurance is increasingly unaffordable, she said, for employees and employers.

Dentzer noted the federal and state governments are moving to remedy the situation, but a vitriolic debate has progressed over the summer. We need our lawmakers to put their egos aside and take action. The challenges our country faces are growing more complex by the week; adding to the complexity with partisan bickering gets us nowhere.

Slimming our waistlines is a more personal challenge, but just as important as confronting health costs. We can start by walking more, eating smaller portions, and avoiding junk food and fast food. By reducing our obesity rates, we're likely to reduce our health costs, too.

Everyone has an important part to play: workers, employers, and the government. Only by collaborating will we come up with a solution.

Median Household Incomes Up, Poverty Down

The Census report also revealed a slight uptick--0.7 percent--in median household income (adjusted for inflation), from $47,845 to $48,201, marking the second consecutive year of increased earnings. But earnings of men and women who work full time decreased by just more than 1 percent.

According to a Wall Street Journal article:

The report also showed how meager some of the gains for those in the middle class have been, the result, in part, of decades-long trend toward wider income inequality. The top fifth of households captured 50.5% of pretax income last year; the bottom three-fifths shared 26.5%. Two decades ago, the best-off fifth received 46.2% while the bottom three-fifths claimed 29.5%.

"Too many lower- and middle-income Americans are not sharing in the gains," said Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning Washington think tank.

Douglas Besharov, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said the report on earnings "wasn't bad" with other costs offsetting some of the gains. "I would not call 2006 a banner year, but it could be a lot worse," he said. "One part of why wages don't look as vigorous as they might is because health-care costs continue to rise, and that comes out of people's paychecks."

Census figures also show the poverty rate declining for the first time in a decade, from 12. 6 percent to 12.3 percent. For individuals, the poverty threshold is $10,294 a year, and for a family of four it's $20,614.

Meanwhile, the fourth annual obesity report by the Trust for America's Health said no state in the union saw a decrease in adult obesity rates, and for the second year in a row, 22 states experienced an increase. For the third consecutive year, Mississippi has the highest rate of adult obesity, and it's the first state to hit a rate of more than 30 percent. Included in the report is a public opinion survey that says 85 percent of Americans believe obesity is an epidemic.

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