March 2011


How many Baby Boomers can dance on the head of a pin? Or here’s a more practical question: How many Baby Boomers could you stuff into a Volkswagen Beetle back in 1967?

And today’s more appropriate question: How many Baby Boomers can you squeeze into one of the country’s smallest states?

It’s suddenly relevant because the Vermont Legislature on Friday approved a bill laying the groundwork for a single payer health care system, AKA universal health care, AKA socialized medicine.

Ouch!

There’s that dreaded term … but did you know that one of Vermont’s U.S. senators is a socialist? Well he’s officially registered in the Senate as an independent, but he identifies himself as a democratic socialist.

Gulp.

Relax.

All of this may change if Michele Bachman takes over in 2013. But until then, my friends, we have socialized education in the U.S., a socialized highway system, and even socialized medicine for the elderly, which is called Medicare. So try to maintain your composure.

(Bachman’s goal: Freedom for all Americans. The freedom to pay for the school you want your child to attend, the freedom to pay for whatever highway you want to take. The freedom to choose any doctor you can afford.)

But getting back to Boomers. Vermont lawmakers have some hurdles to jump, but let’s say they succeed in getting an actual universal health care system in place. How long will it be before Boomers start arriving to take advantage, since it’s a long and perilous journey from age 60 to 65 when Medicare begins. Assuming it’s still available.

Like South Florida, where Palm tree-dotted developments spring up every year catering to the newly retired, Vermont should brace itself for an influx of folks moving to places like Green Mountain Lakes, Phase II. Parkas will become the new tank-tops; snow boots the new flip-flops.

The newly unemployed – or the chronically unemployed – will caravan to the state like the poor farmers of Oklahoma in the 1930s on their way to California. The Promised Land, where health care grows on trees in rich abundance, yours for the picking. Where the streets are paved with Lipitor and the air is so dewy sweet you don’t even need your inhaler.

Sounds like a problem, doesn’t it?

But here’s something else Vermont may get in the bargain: jobs. Because in spite of all the Fox News and Rush Limbaugh blather about universal health care being at odds with free enterprise, the opposite is really true. In places like Canada and Western Europe, one thing companies launching a business don’t have to worry about is paying for high-priced health insurance for their employees.

So if I was going to open up shop with say, 50 employees, and I had the luxury of putting it anywhere in the country, I would seriously consider Vermont. My human resources person could then focus on, well, human resources and getting the most out of the employees – not running interference with insurance companies who have denied worker claims.

Employees would be happier. Happy people make happy products.

If I was a medical provider, I might be attracted to the idea that I won’t have to fight tooth and nail for reimbursement every time I provide services. I’ve interviewed hundreds of medical providers who are happy to work for government programs (even though they may pay less) because it’s a guaranteed solid income stream. The check really IS in the mail.

Come to think of it, a whole lot of people, not just Boomers and the unemployed, could be looking at Vermont for so many different reasons.

And if Vermont is successful, how long will it be before other states catch on that offering its citizens health care can be a draw for private enterprise? It may even beat the current method of attracting business, like what they’ve done in Wisconsin: Direct payment of taxpayer funds to business owners.

Vermont is the Green Mountain State, but it could become known as “America’s Most Business-Friendly State.” A Mecca for mom and pop shops. A granite foundation for small business of the kind that made America great.

Photo: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:END!_VT_191.jpg

In America’s voyeuristic culture, the rise of reality TV over the last decade should be no surprise. True, reality TV also has a big advantage for entertainment producers trying to maximize profits: The shows are cheap to make.

But U.S. TV viewers love their Storage Wars, Dog The Bounty Hunter, and Animal Hoarding.

Why not have a show about an out-of-shape middle-aged guy trying to get healthy? Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota has essentially done just that, while bypassing the television production studios altogether.

It’s all on the Web and it’s all like, totally real, man.

Think: Jared from the Subway commercials only a camera on the guy 24/7 as he chomps his way through a foot-long, picks up a notch on his belt and pals around with an increasingly lithe flock of formerly porky pals. Scary, I know.

But Scott “The Human-Doing” is putting on the whole show at Bloomington Minnesota’s Mall of America (appropriate venue, isn’t it?) in a 20X30 foot all-glass apartment where he’ll be living for the next 30 days (he started Friday, March 18). The quality of his workouts will be voted on by the public via social media (natch).

He has a Facebook page, a blog, online videos and a webcam with live streaming video inside the bubble.

Scott is actually a 45-year-old actor from Minneapolis who does voice-overs and “corporate events,” according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. He has high cholesterol and is 40-50 pounds overweight.

It’s all a great public relations blast for Blue Cross Blue Shield, which is trying to draw attention to the problem of obesity in the U.S. Get that membership in better shape, eating healthier foods and exercising, and that means less use of medical benefits, more profit for the company and even more for its investors.

But that’s not the main driver of this project, honestly. No, really. Stop being so cynical. It’s all about people helping people.

As Marc Manley, Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s chief prevention officer, told the Star-Tribune: “We hope to have a lot of fun with this, but there’s a serious side of it as well. We’re trying to help people move more and eat better, so we can try to solve the problem of obesity.”

Plus I have to tip my hat when I see a good public relations project and this is it. I hope whoever came up with the idea got at least a week in the Cayman Islands and is enjoying a daily all-u-can-eat seafood buffet.

Also, could there ever be a project more tailor-made for the inanities of Facebook? A few comments:

“Heya Human Doing (pronounced “DO-ing” or “DOYng”?) What was the weirdest thing that happened to you today?”

“Great to see you tonight keep up the good work you’ll be back in those parachute pants in no time – Hugs :)”

“You are so brave! Do you have a job to attend to while you are living in the glass apartment?”

“Totally went and saw you today but you had left to get dinner with your wife :)”

So people are getting into it. Totally.

As for Scott himself, he is apparently maneuvering through some uncharted waters when it comes to physical exercise, which has included samplings of yoga and ballet. I wish him the best.

“Thank you for the jump rope,” he said in his Day 2 video recap.” I could feel my heart in my neck for about an hour and a half after that, so I took it super easy.”

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nostri-imago/2874365770/

I’ve always envied people who ooze happiness and insist nothing bothers them, even though they are clearly leading lives of misery. They may have a crumbling marriage, a boss who makes their job a living hell, or kids who have run their credit card to the limit in an orgy of frivolity.

But through it all they remain upbeat, even bubbly.

You can only look at them in stunned admiration and wonder wistfully what your own life might be like had you been gifted with such unwavering optimism.

Always look at the bright side of life, as Monty Python use to say. And the assumption has been that people who perpetually look at the sunny side will live long and prosper.

But now there’s some hope for those of us who see the glass as half-empty … or on some days completely empty.

Turns out compulsive optimism is not the key to longevity, according to research psychologists who looked at the relationship between happiness, personality and health. The results show that a bit of worry and stress is all right and may even be what the doctor ordered.

The study conducted by the University of California at Riverside also sought to answer the annoying but still intriguing question: Do married people really live longer?

The psychologists, Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin – now a professor at Sierra University in Riverside – released the results of their “Longevity Project” on Thursday.

“One of the findings that really astounds people, including us, is that the Longevity Project participants who were the most cheerful and had the best sense of humor as kids lived shorter lives, on average, than those who were less cheerful and joking,” Martin said. “It was the most prudent and persistent individuals who stayed healthiest and lived the longest.”

Why? Because the cheerful kids go on to become adults who believe everything will turn out fine, even in the midst of a crisis. That approach may in some ways be helpful, according to the researchers, but it also leads them to be more careless and take unnecessary risks.

“Prudence and persistence, however, led to a lot of important benefits for many years,” Friedman said. “It turns out that happiness is not a root cause of good health.”

What about marriage? There’s not a simple answer, according to the psychologists. Men who have long-term marriages do live longer than men who have been divorced – even if they’ve re remarried. Men who have never married live longer than divorced men, but not as long as men with long-term marriages.

For women, it doesn’t matter, Martin and Friedman say. Even a divorce is much less harmful to a woman’s health. Women who have been divorced and never remarried live just about as long as women in a long-term marriage.

*
Speaking of happiness, I’ve been following with great interest efforts in the United Kingdom to develop a “happiness index” that the government can share with its constituents.

It’s the brain child of Prime Minister David Cameron, who has been assembling a panel of experts to come up with just the right questions to squeeze happiness statistics out of the general public. Officials will start quizzing people next month and the first index will be released in early 2012.

Imagine the possibilities here. Although the jobless rate is inching up and the GDP in the UK has tumbled 2 percent, elected officials can still point out: “Yes, but the happiness index is up!”

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/laurenprofeta/4844738222/

The FDA is in the final stages of accepting public comments on a proposal to change the name of high-fructose corn syrup to “corn sugar.” If the agency rules in favor of the corn refining industry’s request, which was filed last fall, you can expect to see products that have HFCS to include the much more palatable corn sugar label within the next year or so.

The role of HFCS in metabolism is controversial, with some researchers claiming that it is processed differently by the body than table sugar and that it adds to the epidemic of obesity plaguing the country.

The other side of the argument is that table sugar and HFCS are nutritionally the same.

“Like table sugar, it is roughly half glucose and half fructose and is metabolized by the body in the same way as regular table sugar,” the Corn Refiners Association said in a news release announcing its FDA petition last September. “In fact, the high fructose corn syrup that is used in many foods, such as baked goods, is lower in fructose than table sugar.”

According to The New York Times, the name change was originally endorsed by Marion Nestle, a professor in New York University’s department of nutrition. She said that the term “corn sugar” was more descriptive.

Now, however, Nestle – who writes a blog called Food Politics – has changed her position. In a recent post, she announced that she had submitted a comment to the FDA opposing the name change because it would do little to clear up public confusion about HFCS.

From the point of view of the Corn Refiners Association, though, the name change is a big deal. HFCS has gotten such a bad rap in the media – particularly the online specialty media – that food producers are dropping it as an ingredient just to get it off their labels. They include companies that make Hunt’s Ketchup and Gatorade.

So, sales of HFCS are at a 20-year low.

The science of the issue aside – because to me both camps seem to make valid arguments – I have one question. When did it become the responsibility of the FDA to help companies sell more product by allowing them to mask the ingredients on their labels?

Because that’s really what the name change would do: Consumers would look at the label and conclude that the item in hand no longer contains HFCS – it’s made instead with “corn sugar.”

My bet is that this proposal sails through, however, because the government has always been friendly to the idea of redefining terms for its own convenience. Famously, the Reagan Administration wanted ketchup defined as a vegetable to cut the costs of school lunches. There was a backlash and the program was never implemented.

The Department of Labor, and the Department of Commerce, love to redefine unemployment and inflation. (And by the way, if you’d like to see what today’s economic statistics would look like if we used older and probably more accurate definitions, check out John Williams’ website Shadow Government Statistics.)

Why not give consumers the information they need to compare apples to apples? Because there’s more political advantage to obfuscation, that’s why. So they take the Mary Poppins approach: A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

*

How safe is your private health care data? Take a look at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ data breach website to find out.

HHS requires health care providers to report instances in which more than 500 consumers are affected by the loss of health care records. There are currently 241 cases of data breaches since 2009 described on the site. Types of breaches include theft, loss and unauthorized access.

Here’s one example of a case from Aetna: “On May 28, 2010 Aetna discovered that a file cabinet containing member protected health information (PHI) was not cleaned out before it was given to Aetna’s vendor for removal. The documents inside the file cabinet contained the PHI of approximately 6,372 individuals.”

The impacted individuals were given a year of free credit monitoring and the insurer updated its PHI policies and procedures.

In October 2009, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee reported a theft of computer hard drives that impacted 1,023,209 people.

Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, TX, February 2010: “A binder with printed protected health information (PHI) was stolen from an employee’s vehicle. The covered entity was unable to determine the number of affected individuals, but the stolen binder contained the PHI of up to 1,272 patients.

“The PHI involved in the breach included names, telephone numbers, detailed notes regarding treatment, and possibly Social Security numbers.” The employee was sanctioned and new policies were developed.

Other breaches have involved lost or stolen laptops, backup tapes, and data from portable electronic devices.

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/grampyman/2821863498/