Wellness programs help lower Oklahoma health costs

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Health advocates say anti-smoking, wellness programs and community public health initiatives across the state are helping to improve Oklahoma residents’ health and control the rapidly rising costs of health care.

Programs developed by the Department of Health and other state agencies focus on the leading causes of death among Oklahomans: heart disease, cancer and stroke.

“The goal is to help people live longer, healthier lives,” said Jennifer Lepard, interim director for the Center for Advancement of Wellness at the state Health Department. “It is to eat better, move more and be tobacco free.”

Tracey Strader, executive director of the state’s Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust, says anti-smoking programs have helped to reduce smoking rates. Officials have said at least 6,000 Oklahoma residents die every year from tobacco-related illnesses.

State health officials announced last week that figures released by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate 23.3 percent of Oklahoma residents smoked in 2012, down from 26.1 percent in 2011. That reduced Oklahoma’s national adult smoking rate to 39th highest in the nation, down from 47th last year.

“We’re ecstatic. We all celebrate a reduction,” Strader said. “What’s killing us? It’s our cancer and cardiovascular disease rates. If we can reduce those, we’re also reducing the costs.”

The rapidly rising cost of health care in the U.S. is the major focus of President Barack Obama’s health care law. Millions of new patients will gain eligibility for health insurance under the law, putting additional pressure on the nation’s health care system.

Per-capita health care spending in Oklahoma totaled $6,532 in 2009, according to The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit group focused on major health care issues facing the U.S. as well as the nation’s role in global health policy.

In addition, the average annual growth in health care expenditures in Oklahoma between 1991 and 2009 was 6.7 percent, the foundation said.

U.S. health care spending reached $2.7 trillion in 2011, or $8,700 per person, according to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The agency says those numbers are climbing and predicts spending will reach $14,000 per person by 2021.

For more than a decade, Oklahoma’s tobacco trust has used investment revenue from annual payments by the nation’s biggest tobacco companies to fund smoking cessation and other programs. Strader said the endowment currently totals about $800 million and that $35 million in earnings will be spent over the next year on various health-related grants and programs.

“It’s bringing new hope to people in Oklahoma,” she said. The fund’s focus was originally on the prevention and treatment of cancer but in recent years has expanded to include programs to reduce obesity and a research agenda for tobacco-related diseases.

The state Health Department is also involved in 72 community public health partnerships across the state through the Turning Point Initiative. The initiative’s state director, Arlinda Copeland, said the project engages local communities and their resources on such issues as community health centers and improved nutrition in schools.

“The communities know best. They know what’s best for them,” Copeland said.

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