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Michael Leppert: Poor public health is a decision Indiana is ready to make opinion

In the opening scene of the classic film “House of Animals,” two young freshmen walk past the statue of Emil Faber, the founder of the fictional Faber College. The quote on the statue’s plaque was simple: “Knowledge is good.”

In general, we can all agree with this profound statement, right? If so, it’s “good” to know that Indiana ranks 48th in public health funding nationally.

Gov. Eric Holcomb’s Public Health Commission released its full final report in August this year, confirming numerous details that were already widely known. But as is often the case with collections of facts like this one, the public often looks at the comprehensive document in hopes of drawing the smallest conclusions. Yes, only two states rank behind Indiana in public health funding.

Some conservatives might argue that if our government spends less than others, it’s something. Yes, I can hear them now. Even I hesitate to assume that spending less on government-level programs or initiatives is inherently bad. Measuring yourself in this way is often meaningless. Unfortunately that is not the case this time.

While our funding rankings may seem bad on their own, the result is even worse.

Indiana is an unhealthy state. Like Emil Faber’s unique statement, it is a simple conclusion with profound meaning and consequences.

The ranking

Diving into health data can feel like digging a hole into China — it’s not infinitely deep, but it certainly feels that way. This week I spent some time downloading and perusing spreadsheets from AmericasHealthRankings.org. And while Indiana’s rankings are routinely terrible on the reports, there are bright spots. For example, we rank pretty high when it comes to eating fruit and vegetables. I suppose it’s because we grow such a wonderful variety and extremely high quality versions of it. Indiana corn is certainly great, but there’s nothing quite like an Indiana tomato or southern Indiana melon.

We also rank better than our financing numbers in surprising categories like binge or binge drinking and cannabis use. Our top 25 ranking on this specific drinking data surprises me, but it’s possible that our ranking as the 19th state with the lowest cannabis use is due to respondents’ reluctance to admit they are committing a crime. Our chlamydia rankings also track these two rankings, not that there could be any correlation.

Again, reading through our actual health rankings is even more troubling than our funding numbers. Denying that our lack of investment in our health leads to ill health is a waste of time on any forum.

Enter former State Senator and former Senate Appropriations Chair Luke Kenley. He has credibility in terms of budgets and public policy. He was also co-chair of Holcomb’s commission. What we found out this week is that he plans to work to bridge our funding gap. This is a big deal and what could be the start of real progress.

“I was a bit shocked that we’re so far down the scale in terms of a healthy population,” Kenley said in an interview with the Indianapolis Business Journal this week. The tone of his comments and the commission’s report add value to the investment of an additional $246 million per year in health initiatives.

Invest vs. Spend

Yes, it’s not just expenses. It is an investment in our most valuable asset: people. “If you spend that money up front, you’ll save a lot of money later,” Kenley said.

That’s how investing works. And yet the GOP’s legislative leaders are already reluctant.

When I was a junior agency chief for the state of Indiana, I served on a bipartisan commission established by the Indiana General Assembly. The Legislature was keen to regularly review and change my agency’s priorities to make Indiana better, whatever that meant at the time. Working with the legislature was a big part of my job. My mentor at the time would regularly ask me, “What do you know and when did you know it?”

We’d both laugh at the question, but the source of this hilarious request isn’t fictional. It comes from the famous question Tennessee Senator Howard Baker asked about former President Richard Nixon during the Senate investigation into Watergate. In that particular moment knowledge was definitely not good as it was an indicator of crime.

Indiana has all the knowledge it needs about its public health performance. It has been for decades. The state is terrible and the state knows it.

To govern is to choose. Not only are Hoosiers terribly unhealthy; it is indeed what we have chosen.

Michael Leppert is a writer, educator, and communications consultant. in Indianapolis.

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