June 20, 2014

A lifetime of good health starts in childhood. Health insurance, access to health care and regular exercise make for fit kids with long life expectancies. And nowhere in America are kids healthier than in Vermont.

Across a range of metrics, the Green Mountain State excels, according to the latest data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fewer than one in four Vermont children are overweight or obese. More than 81 percent have access to medical and dental care . Nearly 99 percent have health insurance. And one-third of all Vermont children report exercising at least 20 minutes a day.

Vermont’s relatively small and prosperous population makes it easier than in some other states for officials to reach out to potentially vulnerable children, said Cathy Hess, managing director for coverage and access at the National Academy for State Health Policy. What’s more, Vermont has been a pioneer in children’s health reform.

The state’s Dr. Dynasaur program, created in 1989, covered tens of thousands of low-income children long before the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program came into being. Congressional authors modeled the federal program in part on Vermont’s plan.

Vermont policymakers have also worked for years to build partnerships between public and private institutions to promote children’s health. There’s the Vermont Child Health Improvement Program , run through the University of Vermont; Children’s Integrated Services , run through the state Department for Children and Families, which works to connect low-income families with young children to social services; and the Blueprint for Health , established in 2006 to improve health-care services and control costs.

“They’re focusing on the child and the family, and not so much trying to fit the child in different bureaucratic holes,” Hess said.

Other states can brag about their successes: Children in West Virginia, Missouri, Tennessee and Oklahoma report getting more exercise than their compatriots in Vermont. Kids in Utah and Colorado are less likely to be obese or overweight. And Hawaii and Massachusetts insure a greater proportion of their children.

States with higher percentages of low-income families tend to fall at the less healthy end of the spectrum, especially if those families are minorities with less access to health care. Nearly 40 percent of children in Louisiana and Mississippi are obese or overweight. Only 56 percent of children in Nevada and 59 percent in Idaho have access to medical and dental care. Just 18 percent of Utah children say they get 20 minutes of daily exercise .

Perhaps those states should study Vermont’s model. The Green Mountain State is a lap ahead of the rest of the field.

Percentage of children who are overweight or obese Percentage of children who exercise or play a sport at least 20 minutes every day Percentage of children
with access to medical and dental care
Percentage of children with health insurance
1. Utah 22.1% 1. Oklahoma 34.9% 1. Vermont 81.4% 1. Mass. 99%
2. Colorado 23.1 2. Tennessee 34.5 2. Connecticut 79.5 2. Hawaii 98.8
3. Vermont 24.5 3. West Virginia 34.1 3. N. Hampshire 79.3 3. Vermont 98.7
4. New Jersey 24.7 4. Missouri 33.7 4. Mass. 78.6 4. D.C. 98.7
5. N. Hampshire 26 5. Vermont 33.3 5. D.C. 76.8 5. Wisconsin 98.4

SOURCE: 2011-2012 National Survey of Children’s Health

Reid Wilson covers national politics and Congress for The Washington Post. He is the author of Read In, The Post’s morning tip sheet on politics.