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Governor sets goals to improve state health

By BRUCE SCHREINERAssociated Press

FRANKFORT - Gov. Steve Beshear set out a broad strategy Thursday to make Kentuckians healthier, aiming to cut the state's chronically high rates of smoking, obesity and cancer deaths.

Other objectives include expanding health insurance coverage to nearly every Kentuckian, reducing cardiovascular and drug overdose deaths and improving dental health in the next five years.

Kentucky's dismal health status hurts productivity - from workplaces to classrooms, Beshear said. It harms the state's image with business prospects, drives up health costs and lowers quality of life.

"Cars don't get built when sick workers stay home," the Democratic governor said. "Children don't learn when they're in bed with a cold, asthma or crying from infected gums."

The goals would be accomplished through a combination of executive branch and legislation actions, public-private partnerships and enrollment of more people in health coverage, he said.

The initiative, dubbed "kyhealthnow," will be overseen by a group led by Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson. The group will meet quarterly and make progress reports to the governor every six months. It will recruit local governments, businesses, schools and others to be part of the effort to make the state healthier.

The effort won quick praise from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. Its president/CEO, Susan G. Zepeda, called it a "mix of winnable battles" that will make Kentucky healthier and more competitive.

The objectives set out by the governor include reducing the statewide rates of smoking, obesity, cancer deaths and cardiovascular deaths by 10 percent each by 2019. Other goals aim to reduce the percentage of children with untreated dental decay by 25 percent and reduce drug overdose deaths by 25 percent.

Another key goal is reducing Kentucky's uninsured rate to less than 5 percent.

The strategy to expand health coverage includes increasing the number of insurance agents participating in the state's online health exchange, continuing the promotional campaign for the online marketplace and making other refinements to encourage more people to enroll.

So far, 244,000 Kentuckians have signed up for coverage through Kentucky's exchange, Beshear said.

About three-fourths of them enrolled in the state's expanded Medicaid program and the rest in private insurance plans. The state's performance has earned praise from President Barack Obama.

"Those aren't just numbers," Beshear said. "They represent ... real improvement in people's health."

To reduce smoking rates, Beshear touted legislation calling for a statewide smoking ban at workplaces and in public buildings. The measure cleared a House committee but hasn't come up yet for a House vote. It faces a tough fight in the Republican-led Senate if it clears the Democratic-controlled House.

Beshear also has proposed raising the state cigarette tax to $1 a pack from 60 cents, as part of his plan to revamp Kentucky's tax code.

"Smoking is the single-biggest factor negatively affecting the overall health of Kentuckians," Beshear said. "Our high smoking rates contribute to nation-leading rates of heart disease, respiratory illnesses and other chronic diseases."

Tobacco production has dropped sharply in Kentucky in the past decade but it remains a staple in many rural areas. Kentucky is the nation's top producer of burley tobacco, an ingredient in many cigarettes.

The plan to reduce obesity includes creating more walking and biking paths, urging schools to increase physical activity and working with child-care providers to help keep youngsters from becoming overweight.

To reduce cancer deaths, the strategy includes increasing screening rates for colon, lung and breast cancer.

To improve the state's overall health, behaviors will have to change. It can be as simple as taking time to exercise and drinking more water, said state Health and Family Services Secretary Audrey Tayse Haynes.

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