Improving Health By Focusing on...High School Graduation?
How could West Virginia save hundreds of millions of dollars per year in healthcare costs? By getting more kids to graduate high school. Confused? Let me explain.
Most people understand that health is much more than just medical care. A person's health is the result of a combination of a myriad of factors like genetics, environment, geography, income, and even a bit of luck. So it would probably come as little surprise to find out that research shows a strong connection between one's health and his or her education. The real surprise comes, however, when you discover just how tightly these two are intertwined.
A report released this month by the Alliance for Excellent Education found that students who graduated from high school instead of dropping out would save states an average of $16,113 per graduate in Medicaid and uninsured care over his or her lifetime. With one out of every four high schoolers dropping out before receiving their diploma, West Virginia could save a lot of money by reducing dropouts.
Of all the factors contributing to health outcomes, educational attainment may be the most strongly correlated. As they say, however, correlation does not equal causation and having dropped out of high school does not make someone unhealthy in and of itself. But it does significantly increase the likelihood that they will be unemployed or have low-paying jobs, lack health insurance and the ability to seek regular medical care, be unable to access healthy and affordable food, and live in substandard housing. In addition, lower levels of education mean they are more likely to work in jobs that are generally more dangerous and expose workers to greater health hazards like operating heavy machinery, coal mining, logging, or handling dangerous chemicals. Each of these is a health risk factor by itself, and a high school dropout is much more likely to encounter many or all of them than someone with a high school diploma or higher.
In 2010, only 75 percent of West Virginia high school seniors received their diploma. If we could reduce the number of dropouts by half, bringing the graduation rate to 87 percent alongside states like Iowa, Vermont, and Wisconsin, West Virginia would save an estimated $30.9 million in Medicaid costs every year. Additionally, there would be greater societal savings of tens of millions of dollars in reduced heart disease, obesity, alcoholism, and smoking-related costs.
When one talks about the "healthcare system" we usually think of big hospitals, expensive equipment, and doctors saving lives in the ER. But these are just the tip of the iceberg of what truly impacts our everyday health and well-being. We are surrounded at all times by factors that contribute to our health, as individuals and as a community or state. The roads we drive on, the air we breath, the water we drink, the sugar content of the food we buy, our parents' health behaviors, the number of parks in our neighborhoods – everything plays a role, and central to it all is education. Investing in education is also a down payment on the future health of our state.