August 18, 2014 / 11:06 PM / in 5 years

Tech investor gets five towns to join social-health experiment

SAN FRANCISCO, Aug 18 (Reuters) - Technology investor Esther Dyson thinks she has found the answer to America’s growing health concerns, and has enlisted five smaller cities across the country to try and prove it.

Dyson, an early investor in Square and board member for Yandex, Russia’s answer to Google Inc, has drafted five towns to participate in a five-year long test, or what she calls a “healthy living challenge.”

By introducing programs and urban planning initiatives, such as wholesome school lunches, corporate wellness programs and more bike paths, Dyson hopes to reduce overall rates of obesity and chronic disease in these towns.

Dyson calls this the “Way to Wellville,” where such programs reinforce each other, promote awareness, and hopefully avert expensive healthcare costs over the long term.

Its sponsor is a nonprofit organization called the Health Initiative Coordinating Council, or HICCup, which Dyson founded. HICCup will help local officials find funding from social investors, local businesses and philanthropic organizations.

Each of the towns expects to spend between $20 million and $80 million over the next five years. HICCup, run by former insurance executive Rick Brush, has set aside some $5 million for administrative costs.

The five towns are: Muskegon, Michigan; Lake County, California; Spartanburg, South Carolina; Clatsop County, Oregon; and Niagara falls, New York. These communities all have populations of less than 100,000 people, and their local officials are fully on board with the initiative, Dyson said.

Dyson hopes to establish a model for other communities and provide direct feedback to policymakers in government. Her experiment is timely, given the Obama Administration’s support for “population health” initiatives as a means to cut spiraling costs. Population health advocates push for increased funding for preventative measures for groups of patients to reduce rates of chronic illness.

For instance, if a town invests a small sum into programs to inform citizens about the health risks associated with fast food, as well as counseling for pre-diabetes, it could avoid thousands of dollars in medical care and reduced work productivity.

“The programs by and large won’t be remarkable,” Dyson said. “What’s remarkable is doing them together, reinforcing one another, and critical density, in small self-contained communities where they will have maximum impact.” (Reporting By Christina Farr. Editing by Andre Grenon)

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