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Healthiest State Initiative

August 10, 2011 | News & Press Releases

Iowans can turn their state into the nation’s healthiest—physically, emotionally and economically—under a plan endorsed by the state and spearheaded by key business leaders, including Hy-Vee CEO Ric Jurgens.

“I can’t think of anything more important to the well-being of our state, and to the people of our state, than this initiative,” Branstad told a group of civic leaders today at the Science Center of Iowa in Des Moines. “Let’s make the Healthiest State Initiative a reality.”

Jurgens, along with John Forsyth, CEO of Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Iowa, and Doug Reichardt, chairman emeritus of insurance brokerage Holmes Murphy & Associates, will co-chair the ambitious effort to raise the Hawkeye State’s collective “well-being index.”

Jurgens, in unveiling the plan to Hy-Vee employees last month, said the goal is to “create less of a need for health care” by capitalizing on the company’s goal to make lives easier, healthier and happier.

The initiative will kick off with a statewide Start Somewhere Walk on Oct. 7. Organizers want every Iowan to simultaneously take a 1-kilometer walk at noon that day. Iowans can pledge their commitment to the initiative and find a walk near them at

As part of the larger effort, Healthiest State Ambassador teams, trained at the Hy-Vee corporate office, will fan out across Iowa to push the importance of healthy eating and physical activity.

Wellmark has committed up to $25 million to the initiative, which is a response to Iowa’s rating on a well-being index developed by a consulting company, Gallup-Healthways, which surveys 1,000 Americans daily to create a snapshot of their overall physical and emotional health.

Iowa ranked 19th in 2010. Hawaii was first; West Virginia last.

Putting Iowa atop the rankings “is about economic vitality,” Iowa Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds said at the kickoff news conference. “We need Iowans to take ownership of their own health care.”

The initiative has been endorsed by First Lady Michelle Obama, who wants to sharpen the nation’s focus on healthy eating and exercise, particularly among young people.

Branstad, who was accompanied at the news conference by members of Iowa’s congressional delegation and Mariannette Miller-Meeks, director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, quoted statistics that show two-thirds of Iowans are overweight or obese, a rate that has increased 66 percent since 1995. If successful, the initiative could allow the state to redirect $16 billion toward economic health rather than care for unhealthy Iowans. He said 75 percent of health care costs derive from preventable, chronic conditions.

"You can’t control your genetics, but you can control the decisions you make,” said Branstad, adding that he lost 15 pounds during his campaign for governor last year and kept the weight off with diet and exercise.

The state’s improvement plan will include strategies based on the findings of author and researcher Dan Buettner, who spent three years examining areas across the globe where life expectancies are high and the incidence of chronic disease is low. Inhabitants of these so-called “blue zones” of health and well-being share some common characteristics, such as smart nutrition dominated by plant-based diets, lots of natural movement, positive outlooks, a collective sense of purpose and strong connections to community, family and faith.

When elements of the blue zones were replicated in Albert Lea, MN, community members experienced improved life expectancies, a 49 percent decrease in municipal workers’ health care costs, and intangible emotional benefits as well.

Branstad’s 90-year-old uncle lives in Albert Lea and is a testament, the governor said, to what community health initiatives can accomplish.
“If Albert Lea can do it, we can do it,” he said.

Jurgens said last month that Hy-Vee is a logical partner for the statewide effort. The company’s growing HealthMarket areas, its army of dietitians and the NuVal Nutritional Scoring System are all evidence of Hy-Vee’s commitment to good health, which is at the center of the initiative.

Ten communities will be chosen through an application process—details will be announced next month —to become Iowa’s first blue zones under the plan. Wellmark will provide initial resources in those cities, establish a Blue Zone Institute to help local leaders make the transformation, and deliver more financial help if benchmarks are met.

“This will be data-driven. We will measure if we are making progress or not,” Branstad said. “We will also challenge other states to compete with us…because I truly think the only way we can solve our country’s health care crisis is for people to take control of their own health.”