The Chamber’s Business Advocacy team keeps our finger on the pulse of Indy’s business community through our Policy Councils: These member-led committees help set our agenda and develop specific positions for Education & Workforce; Transportation, Infrastructure & Environment; and Local Government & Fiscal Policy.

But we’ve come to realize that we haven’t sufficiently engaged our members to explore some of the most critical root causes of our challenges in human capital, economic growth and inclusion, safer streets and stronger neighborhoods – public health.

The Chamber has advocated for important health-related issues in the past, most notably efforts to bring down Indiana’s dismal smoking rate (among the worst ten states for per capita cigarette use), following up on earlier support for local smoking bans.

We’ve also weighed in on initiatives like ‘Complete Streets’ policies that encourage walkability and safety, fighting food insecurity (including focusing last year’s ‘Civic Hack’ on high-tech solutions to hunger, such as a promising Food Compass program).  But the time has come to develop a more comprehensive vision that elevates public health as a policy priority.

After all, how can we expect our schools to prepare future generations for the job market if these students come to class hungry, malnourished or without adequate healthcare?  Can we really tout the affordability of our business climate if employers pay higher health costs and taxpayers shoulder a growing state Medicaid budget?

Certainly, Indiana’s high rates of smoking and chronic illnesses (many tied to tobacco use and other poor health habits) take a massive toll in lost productivity and workforce performance.  The ways that public health influences the health of our regional and state economy go on and on.

That’s why we’re pleased to introduce our new Indy Chamber Health Policy Council (HPC), chaired by Claire Fiddian-Green, President & CEO of the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation.  The Council is comprised of leaders from member companies in the health space and will help guide the development of key health  priorities for the Chamber’s legislative agenda and civic engagement.

A 911 call to action
While public health issues are complex and demand long-term thinking and sustained focus (and investment), the urgency of the HPC’s mandate is also clear – state and local health trends are startling and getting worse in key areas.  We need action now – a few indicators (part of an unfortunately longer list):

  • Indiana’s smoking rank among states is only getting worse (slipping from 39th to 44th from 2015 to 2017);
  • The state also ranks 4th in adult prevalence of mental health issues, while ranking 42nd in mental health providers per capita;
  • Indiana’s infant mortality rate is more than 20% higher than the nation’s (and Marion County’s rate lags the state average);
  • In a dysfunctional dichotomy, nearly a million Hoosiers face persistent food insecurity, while one in three residents are obese (contributing to a double-digit incidence of adult diabetes).

CHIPping away at homelessness
Homelessness is one more socioeconomic issue that’s simultaneously a health challenge, given the role of mental health and addiction issues as root causes, along with the long-term, intergenerational impacts of prolonged homelessness.

We tackled this complex topic at last week’s Pancakes & Politics event, featuring the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention & Prevention (CHIP), the City of Indianapolis and Concerned Clergy.

Our panel discussed the City’s plans to engage and employ the homeless to curb panhandling, CHIP’s ongoing implementation of the Community Plan to End Homelessness (featuring housing initiatives and programs to support and stabilize the homeless population), and the racial inequalities that exacerbate the issue.

The Chamber supports the City and CHIP’s plans, and the pursuit of more comprehensive, compassionate and enforceable strategies to combat homelessness.

Adopting a broader perspective, if we value a vibrant, livable downtown and a more inclusive Indianapolis economy, we have to treat homelessness and panhandling as a civic and philanthropic priority and public safety issue – but also another byproduct of unmet public health needs.

Take a deep breath…
It would be easy to get overwhelmed by the scale of health-related challenges afflicting Hoosiers and affecting our economic competitiveness.  But the HPC is examining the critical issues and the Chamber’s previous engagements to develop a high-impact agenda for a healthier Indy Region.

A natural place to start is our current focus on lowering Indiana’s (and Marion County’s) high smoking rate.

The General Assembly passed up another opportunity to cut smoking and boost the state’s bottom line by snuffing out plans to hike cigarette taxes (and raise the legal age to buy tobacco products to 21, a policy that’s gained some momentum at the federal level).

Indiana’s current (per pack) cigarette tax, at just under a dollar, is the lowest in the Midwest and provides a modest revenue stream, roughly $240 million annually.  The impact on workforce productivity, individual and employer health costs, the growth of programs like Medicaid (nearly half of Indiana’s adult Medicaid enrollees are smokers) runs into the billions of dollars every year, in contrast.

‘Cheap’ cigarettes are a costly choice for our economy, not to mention the thousands of Hoosiers suffering – and dying – from smoking-related ailments or left unable to work from chronic disease.

The consequences of today’s decisions extend far into the future.  Smoking also exacerbates infant and maternal mortality via high rates of prenatal smoking; in many cases, it serves as a common ‘gateway’ for many young people into substance use and misuse.  Evidence suggests that nearly all users of opioids were smokers first.

With the endorsement of the HPC and working again with the ‘Raise It for Health’ coalition of other business groups, hospitals and public health advocates, we anticipate advocating for this issue again in 2020.

Other topics that have been on our agenda in the past and are being given a new look in the context of public health by the HPC include:

  • Obesity and Nutritional Health
  • Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health
  • Infant and Maternal Health
  • Social Determinants of Health

We’ll be providing more details as the HPC ramps up this important work and helps shape our policy prescriptions for a healthier, more productive Indianapolis Region and state.