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Indiana’s horrific public health standing is a choice it’s willing to make

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Indiana’s horrific public health standing is a choice it’s willing to make

Nov 30, 2022 | 7:00 am ET
By Michael Leppert
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Indiana’s horrific public health standing is a choice it’s willing to make
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Governor's Public Health Commission co-chair and former state Sen. Luke Kenley summarizes some of the body's recommendations on Aug. 4, 2022. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

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

Generally, we can all agree with that profound statement, can’t we? If so, it is “good” to know that Indiana ranks 48th in the nation on public health funding. 

Gov. Eric Holcomb’s Public Health Commission released its extensive final report in August of this year, confirming plenty of details that were generally already known. But as is often the case with fact-gathering entities like this one, the public often looks at the sweeping document in hopes of establishing the smallest of conclusions. Yes, only two states rank lower than Indiana in funding public health. 

Some conservatives could claim that having our government spend less than others is something to tout. Yes, I can hear them now. Even I am reluctant to assume that it is fundamentally bad to spend less on any governmentally based program or initiative. Measuring ourselves this way is often meaningless. Sadly, that is not the case this time.

While our funding rankings certainly seem bad by themselves, the result is even worse. 

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

The rankings

Diving into health data can feel like digging a hole to China—it’s not infinitely deep, but it sure feels like it. This week, I spent some time downloading and reading through spreadsheets at AmericasHealthRankings.org. And though Indiana’s ranking is routinely horrible throughout the reports, there are bright spots. For example, we rank rather high on the consumption of fruits and vegetables. I assume that is because we grow such wonderful variety and extremely high-quality versions of them. Indiana corn is certainly great, but there is nothing like an Indiana tomato or southern Indiana melon. 

We also rank better than our funding numbers in surprising categories like binge or excessive drinking and consumption of cannabis. Our top 25 ranking on this specific drinking data surprises me, but it is possible that our rank as 19th lowest cannabis-use state is attributable to those surveyed being reluctant to admit they are committing a crime. Our chlamydia rankings track these two rankings as well, not that there could be any correlation.

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

Enter former state senator, and former Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley. He has credibility on budgets and public policy. He also co-chaired Holcomb’s commission. What we found out this week is that he plans to advocate for the closing of our funding gap. This is a big deal, and what could be the beginning of real progress. 

“I was somewhat shocked that we were so far at the bottom end of the scale in terms of having 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 drives the value of investing an additional $246 million per year in health initiatives.

Investing vs. spending

Yes, it is not just spending. It is an investment in our most valuable asset: people. “If you spend that money upfront, it saves you lots of money later on,” Kenley said. 

That is how investing works. And yet GOP legislative leaders are already balking

When I was a young agency executive for the State of Indiana, I served a bipartisan commission created by the Indiana General Assembly. The legislature took great interest in regularly reviewing and changing my agency’s priorities for purposes of making Indiana better, whatever that meant at the time. Working with the legislature was a big part of my job. My mentor in those days used to regularly ask me, “what do you know and when did you know it?” 

We both would laugh at the question, but the source of that funny inquiry isn’t fictitious. It comes from the famous question asked about former President Richard Nixon by Tennessee Senator Howard Baker during the senate’s investigation of Watergate. In that specific moment, knowledge was definitely not good, as it was an indicator of criminality.

Indiana has all the knowledge it needs about how it is performing on public health. It has had it for decades. The state is terrible, and the state knows it. 

Governing is choosing. Hoosiers don’t just happen to be terribly unhealthy; it actually is what we have chosen to be.