RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Let's talk about one of the reforms in the Affordable Care Act that provides funding to states to encourage preventive health care. A provider in Oregon is using the money to introduce something called The Good Behavior Game in elementary schools. The belief is that schoolchildren who play the game now will be less likely to start smoking later, saving the health care system millions of dollars.
Kristian Foden-Vencil of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports.
KRISTIAN FODEN-VENCIL, BYLINE: Teacher Cami Railey sits at a small table, surrounded by four kids at Danebo Elementary in Eugene. She's about to teach them the ss sound and the ah sound. But first, as she does every day, she goes over the rules of the Good Behavior Game.
CAMI RAILEY: You're going to earn your stars today by sitting in the learning position. That means your bottom is on your seat, backs on the back of your seat. Excellent job, just like that.
FODEN-VENCIL: So for good learning behavior, like sitting quietly, keeping their eyes on the teacher and working hard, kids get a star and some stickers. If they daydream or interrupt, they don't. Kindergartener Kelly McKurney(ph). Do you think kids like learning more when you play the Good Behavior Game?
KELLY MCKURNEY: Yes.
FODEN-VENCIL: And why is that?
MCKURNEY: Because every time when we get something, we get more and more stars.
FODEN-VENCIL: Railey says the game keeps the kids plugged in and therefore learning more. That in turn makes them better educated teens and adults who're less likely to pick up a dangerous habit, like smoking.
RAILEY: And the purpose of the Good Behavior Game is to help keep kids on task and focused and it's to encourage students to make positive behavior choices and to increase their academic and social success in the classroom.
FODEN-VENCIL: And the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Coalition for Evidence Based Policy says it works. It did a study that found that by age 13, the game reduced the number of kids who started to smoke by 26 percent and reduced the number of kids who started to take hard drugs by more than half.
JENNIFER WEBSTER: The Good Behavior Game is more than just a game that you play in the classroom. It's actually been called a behavioral vaccine.
FODEN-VENCIL: Jennifer Webster is the disease prevention coordinator for Trillium Community Health. The fact that a kindergarten teacher is playing the Good Behavior Game isn't unusual. What is unusual is that one of Oregon's coordinated care organizations, Trillium, is paying for it. Webster stays Trillium is setting aside nearly $900,000 a year for disease prevention strategies, like this one.
WEBSTER: This is really what needs to be one, what we really need to focus on is prevention. So I actually don't see this as a risk at all.
FODEN-VENCIL: Trillium is paying the poorer schools of Eugene's Bethel School District to adopt the strategy in 50 classrooms. Trillium CEO Terry Coplin says changes to Oregon and federal law mean that instead of paying for each Medicaid recipient to get treatment, as used to be the case, Trillium gets a fixed amount of money for each of its 56,000 Medicaid recipients. That way Trillium can pay for disease prevention efforts than benefit the whole Medicaid population, not just person by person as they need it.
TERRY COPLIN: I think the return on investment for the Good Behavior Game is going to be somewhere in the neighborhood of ten to one.
FODEN-VENCIL: So, for each dollar spent on playing the game, the health agency expects to save $10 by not having to pay to treat these kids for lung cancer, because they took up smoking later in life. Coplin concedes that some of Trillium's Medicaid recipients will leave the system each year. But he says, prevention still makes medical and financial sense.
COPLIN: All the incentives are really aligned in the right direction. The healthier that we can make the population, the bigger the financial reward.
FODEN-VENCIL: The Oregon Health Authority estimates that each pack of cigarettes smoked costs Oregonians about $13 in medical expenses and productivity losses. Not all the money Trillium is spending goes for the Good Behavior Game. Some of it is earmarked to pay pregnant smokers cold, hard cash to give up the habit. There's also a plan to have kids try to buy cigarettes at local stores, then give money to owners who refuse to sell. For NPR News, I'm Kristian Foden-Vencil in Portland.
MONTAGNE: And that story is part of a reporting partnership between NPR, Oregon Public Broadcasting and Kaiser Health News. You are listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.