Mayoral candidates to debate health

Ryan Holeywell | @RyanHoleywell | May 28, 2015

 flickr/Will Rice 77

flickr/Will Rice 77

The slew of candidates vying to become Houston’s next mayor will inevitably spend the next six months giving stump speeches about jobs, infrastructure and public safety.

One topic unlikely to get a slew of headlines is health. But Lan Bentsen wants that to change. He might just get his way.

“We want to make sure it’s more than potholes and pensions on the agenda,” said Bentsen, founder and chairman of Shape Up Houston, a non-profit that encourages weight-loss and wellness in Texas’ largest city.

Typically, public health isn’t a topic that gets much play in any election – much less a mayoral contest. Generally, health care is seen as purview of the federal government, which runs Medicare, or state governments, which run Medicaid. But Bentsen says cities can play a large role in health, simply by taking steps to help residents get in shape.

As he sees it, Houston’s epidemic of obesity is so serious that it’s a topic anybody who wants to be mayor needs to address. An estimated 63 percent of Houston adults are overweight or obese, according to the Houston Department of Health and Human Services.

On Sept. 17, Shape Up Houston and the Kinder Institute will host a mayoral candidate forum on health and wellness. Candidates Chris Bell, Steve Costello, Bill King, Marty McVey and Sylvester Turner have confirmed they will attend. Candidates Ben Hall and Adrian Garcia have been invited.

“They key thing is to get folks on record as to what they think the key health issues are and to commit to moving us forward,” said Bentsen, the son of legendary U.S. senator Lloyd Bentsen. “We want a health plank in everyone’s platform.”

Bentsen insists it’s critically important that the next mayor take steps to advance the city’s wellness. He applauded outgoing Mayor Annise Parker, who’s pushed to expand parks, bicycle routes and pedestrian-friendly streets in the city. “The challenge,” Bentsen said, “is can we maintain the improvements?”

One simple way a mayor can have an effect on public health is through his or her bully pulpit. “They need to be the healthy, moral voice for the city,” Bentsen said. In Oklahoma City, for example, Mayor Mick Cornett lost 40 pounds as he challenged his city’s residents to take steps to lose weight and reduce obesity in the community. He also said the city could play a role in offering up a wellness program to workplaces across Houston.

If the prospect of living longer isn’t enough to get people to care about health, then the cost of obesity should be. Still, he concedes, promoting health isn’t easy – even if it’s a position few can argue with. “People don’t sufficiently appreciate where our health is in this city,” Bentsen said. “Obesity is what got our organization going, but it’s a hard message. People don’t want to hear about it or talk about it.”

Have a question you want asked at the health debate? Tweet it to us using the hashtag #HOUhealth


Houston Mayoral Candidate Forum On Urban Health and Wellness

September 17, 2015

Breakfast: 7:30 a.m. to 8 a.m.

Forum: 8 a.m. to 9 a.m.

Bioscience Research Collaborative (BRC) Auditorium

6500 Main Street

Houston, TX

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