Arkansas Takes Aim at First in the Nation Obesity Status

Arkansas was recently found to have an obesity rate of 35.9%, but the new plan does not call for any mandates, only incentives for schools and businesses.

Apparently being first didn’t sit well with Governor Asa Hutchinson.

The Arkansas Republican unveiled a 10-year plan this week to tackle his state’s problem with girth, which was highlighted recently when the Trust for America’s Health found that the state had the highest obesity rate in the country.

Hutchinson’s plan, called Healthy Active Arkansas, seeks to encourage schools and businesses to promote healthier eating and more activity. The move aims to save the state money in healthcare costs, which is a priority since Arkansas is among the few Southern states to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. The well-publicized “private option” is considered a blueprint for more conservative states that seek to extend benefits to those households earning up to 138% of the federal poverty level but do not want to fully embrace “Obamacare.”

On Wednesday, Hutchinson said his effort combat obesity would do the job without costing any additional money. “It’s an important issue to me because an unhealthy Arkansas is an expensive habit for the taxpayers,” the Republican governor said at a news conference.

On September 21, 2015, Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released a report, The State of Obesity, which found that Arkansas’ obesity rate of 35.9% was the highest in the nation. The South and the Midwest generally had higher obesity rates than the rest of the county, with 23 of the states in the upper half in those regions. The South is also home to 9 of the 10 states with the highest rates of diabetes, which accounts for many rising costs in Medicaid and Medicare.

Hutchinson did not offer a specific goal for where he hoped Arkansas’ obesity rate would be in a decade, but he did put much of the focus on children, which was a key recommendation from the report issued in September.

His plan calls for providing nutrition education at early child care centers through college, requiring school districts with at least 3000 students employ a registered dietitian, incentives for stores to offer access to healthy foods and encouraging limits on sodas and other sugary beverages at public and private employers. Notably, his plan focuses on incentives, not mandates.

“We’re not going to tell business what to do,” Hutchinson said. “We’re going to encourage them and lead by example.”

State Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe is leading a consortium that includes the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, the state Department of Health and the state Minority Health Commission to oversee its implementation. “We have a long way to go before we make our state as healthy as we’d like it to be,” Bledsoe said.

Arkansas has tried to tackle obesity in the past. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee, now seeking the Republican presidential nomination, required schools to measure students’ body mass index (BMI), and was well-known for his own effort to lose a large amount of weight. Lawmakers later scaled back those efforts.

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