Vermont is the healthiest state in the nation for the fourth year in a row, according to an annual national study.
United Health Foundation has conducted health rankings for the last 23 years. Vermont, which started out as 17th in 1998, rose to No. 1 in the rankings and has remained there for four years.
“We are doing well compared to the other 49 states, but we are not doing well enough,” Gov. Peter Shumlin said at a press conference held to announce the rankings Tuesday.
Shumlin and his health commissioner, Dr. Harry Chen, agreed that obesity is high on the agenda of health issues that Vermont must address. Vermont ranks 13th in the nation for its obesity rate; 25.4 percent of adults in Vermont fall in this category.
Chen put it this way: “The whole nation is getting fatter. We’re getting fatter at a slower rate.”
Shumlin identified education as the key to reducing obesity, and he said that Vermont’s new single payer health care should help to address the problem by placing greater emphasis on preventive care and rewarding healthy behavior.
“I believe that the best way that you can deal with questions of obesity is through education and ensuring that we get to both kids and parents to give them the information they need to make healthy choices,” Shumlin said. “We can make great progress there and that’s where I’d start.”
Shumlin pointed to what he says has been considerable progress in this regard, using his own school years as a baseline for comparison — “When I was in school in Vermont … there was no awareness that there was any link between obesity and how many Cokes or how many 7-Ups we drank. … All I’m saying is, the awareness curve on this issue has moved leap years.” Shumlin said he would not support a sugar sweetened beverage tax because of its regressive nature.
Asked if this study, as a testament to Vermont’s high health outcomes, offered an argument against the overhaul of the state’s health care system, Shumlin said no. Vermont may top the charts, he said, “but if we’re the first generation of Americans that might live less long than our parents because of what we eat, we’ve got a lot of room to make improvement.”
The rankings derived from 15 different “determinants” and eight different “outcomes” that United Health Foundation takes into account. Determinants include people’s behavior (the percent of people who smoke, for example), environmental factors (such as violent crime rate), policies (such as the rate of health insurance coverage), and clinical care factors (for instance, the number of preventable hospitalizations). Outcomes include cancer deaths, infant mortality rates, cardiovascular deaths, and the percent of the adult population with diabetes, among others.
The study found that relative to the rest of the nation, Vermont has a very low percentage of people leading sedentary lifestyles, a high rate of health insurance coverage, low rates of infectious diseases, and a low rate of low birth weights. Chen credited expansions in Medicaid, Catamount, and Dr. Dynasaur health insurance programs as the “pivot points” that have enabled Vermont to ascend in the rankings over the past couple of decades.
Vermont has a less luminous record when it comes to binge drinking and the rate of cancer deaths. It ranks 27th for the rate of binge drinking and 28th for cancer fatalities. In reference to the latter, Chen said, “That’s something I don’t have an answer for if you ask why, but we are certainly actively looking at how they did the rankings and what is the underlying cause and what we can do to improve it.”
Vermont ranks 15th for percentage of children in poverty, and this figure jumped from 13.5 percent in 2011 to 16.4 percent in 2012.
A link to the 2012 United Health Foundation rankings can be found here: http://www.americashealthrankings.org/Rankings