Patriotic duty to be healthy, acting U.S. surgeon general says


LITTLE ROCK — Every American has a patriotic duty to stay healthy, the acting U.S. surgeon said Wednesday in an appearance in Arkansas in which he emphasized the Oct. 1 start to enrollment for health coverage through state exchanges under the Affordable Care Act.

“Our country suffers when we have an unhealthy population,” acting Surgeon General Boris Lushniak told a crowd of about 200 people attending the annual Low Income Advocates Leadership and Community Development Conference at the Doubletree Hotel.

Lushniak noted Arkansas’ high rate of obesity and adult Type 2 diabetes.

“This is not a good sign in terms where this nation is heading,” the U.S. Navy rear admiral said. “So is it not the patriotic thing to do … to be healthy?”

He also noted the religious emphasis on good health.

“Every religion that I know of cherishes the body, some religions call the body the temple of God,” he said. “So the idea here is, can we instill the concept of health, of wellness, into our population by reminding people that it is the right thing to do to cherish your body?”

Lushniak, who has served as acting surgeon general since mid-July when Regina Benjamin stepped down, urged conference attendees to remind those without insurance or who are under-insured that they can begin signing up for subsidized coverage through health insurance exchanges Oct. 1.

“We have learned from experience that to do anything, anything that is difficult, takes … you touching your community, being the ambassador to those individuals, the under-served and vulnerable in our nation,” he said. “From a public health aspect … that is the population that I need to touch now. Without your help, without your activism, without you being there, without you going out and helping me in this mission, the mission will not be accomplished.”

The federal Affordable Care Act proposed that states expand their Medicaid rolls to include people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level — $15,856 for an individual, $32,499 for a family of four. Arkansas instead is proposing to use federal Medicaid dollars to subsidize private insurance for that population, estimated at up to 250,000 Arkansans, through the planned insurance exchange.

The so-called private option adopted by the Legislature this year has received tentative approval from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services but still needs a federal waiver, which state human services officials hope to get by the time health exchange enrollment begins.

Arkansas Surgeon General Joe Thompson told conferees Wednesday the program would improve access to health care, strengthen personal responsibility and cut costs.

Early Wednesday, Lushniak led a group of state health officials and students from eSTEM Charter School on a two-mile walk. He also met with Thompson to discuss ways to improve health care in the state.