Healthy lifestyles not rewarded under current system

Wednesday, October 9, 2013 - 19:00

Sir Edmund Hillary, Bradford Washburn, Fred Beckey and Yuichiro Miura. What do these people have in common? They’re all famous mountaineers.

What else? They all lived (Beckey and Miura are still alive) past age 80 — primarily because of excellent physical conditioning acquired through a lifetime of rigorous physical exercise.

Closer to home, former U.S. Secretary of the Interior and Alaska Governor Walter J. Hickel lived to be 91. Throughout his life, he was an avid fitness buff, working out nearly every day.

Because of exceptional accomplishments in their lives, each of these people (with the exception of dirt bag climber Fred Beckey) could probably afford their own private health insurance and had access to relatively good medical care.

But here’s the question: Were any of them ever rewarded or incentivized by insurance companies for taking good care of themselves? Is “preventative medicine” even considered amidst the raging debate over health care?

Through membership in the Mountaineering Club of Alaska (MCA), personal friends and others I know, I am aware of people who have hit the Medicare 65-year-old mark and are advancing well into their 70s. Yet, they are still active in the mountains — many of whom can hike circles around people half their age.

I wonder: When it comes time for these people to have certain medical procedures — whether under Medicare, Obamacare, or perhaps under a Republican-sponsored form of coverage called “We Don’t Care” — will they be denied coverage by insurance companies because of the one-size-fits-all assessment based on age?

I haven’t heard anything in the current health care debate about rewarding people for healthy lifestyles, young or old.

I recall trying to purchase life insurance several years ago. None of my healthy living habits, as well as my documented low heart rate, both resting and with exertion, were figured into the premiums I would pay. It took forever to acquire the coverage, and I’m sure I ended up paying the same premium as those who sit in front of their televisions eight hours a day and exist on a diet of pizza and ice cream.

Doctors could provide proof to insurance companies, and if under Obamacare, health care coverage administrators, that a given individual is leading a healthy lifestyle and eligible for certain procedures only available to younger people. With such documented proof, insurance companies could also reduce the premiums of those individuals.

Like my mountain climbing buddies, I get outdoors as often as I can because it makes me feel better. I enjoy the physical demands and challenges of Alaska’s rugged terrain. I know that my continuous forays into the wilds have made me healthier than I would be if I were sedentary — both physically and mentally.

You don’t have to be a mountaineer to remain healthy into your 60s, 70s, 80s and even 90s. Regular exercise, good nutrition, good sleep habits, stress reduction, attention to social relationships and regular medical checkups all figure into a person’s overall health status.

Granted, genetics play a part. But I believe we have the ability to overcome some genetic deficiencies by adhering to a healthy lifestyle over a long period of time.

But to health care administrators and insurance companies, people like me — in their 60s and heading for 70s — are simply medical liabilities who are on the final glide path and not deserving of procedures that might enhance our lives.

In other words, our lives aren’t worth that much anymore.


Frank Baker is a freelance writer and columnist who lives in Eagle River.

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