September 25, 2009

HEALTH CARE REFORM MUST FOCUS ON PREVENTION AND WELLNESS

Congress has returned from its August recess and is now focused on health care reform.   During the recess, I held four town hall meetings across Maryland and many people urged me to ensure that health care reform includes a strong emphasis on prevention and wellness.   

 

Our nation has done a remarkable job of treating illness, but we have not done enough to prevent disease and promote wellness.  Today, more than half of all Americans live with at least one chronic condition, accounting for 75 percent of all health care spending each year.   Five chronic diseases, -- heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and diabetes -- are responsible for more than two-thirds of all deaths in the United States and they can be either prevented or better managed if patients stop smoking, lose excess weight and increase their level of physical activity.  

 

A study by the Trust for America's Health found that by investing $10 a person per year in programs that increase physical activity, improve nutrition and prevent smoking and other tobacco use, the United States could save more than $16 billion annually within five years.   

 

Safeway, one of the nation's largest employers, has built a culture of health and fitness.   Safeway offers reduced health care premiums to employees based on four criteria: tobacco usage, healthy weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels.    Obesity and smoking rates among Safeway employees are 30 percent lower than the national average, and the company has been able to keep health care costs constant over a four-year period.   That's a real achievement, and one that should be emulated nationally.

 

With health care costs continuing to outpace inflation, and health premiums outpacing working families' incomes, a key goal of health care reform must be to bring down the growth rate of health care.   That means we need to reduce the onset of chronic diseases before they become much more expensive to treat.  

 

To achieve that goal, we need to make sure everyone has access to preventive health services. We need to create a national strategy for prevention that includes educational and outreach programs, increased access to health care for the uninsured, and expanded authority for employers to create programs similar to Safeway's.

 

Earlier this year, I fought to ensure that the Children's Health Insurance Program    Reauthorization Act included guaranteed dental coverage.   No child in America should die from tooth decay, which is what happened two years ago to a 12-year-old child from Prince George's County, MD.   Basic oral health care is an essential element of wellness, and we can improve our nation's overall health by improving access to dental providers.   

 

As we work to reform our nation's health care system, we have an opportunity to set new priorities that encourage prevention and wellness.   Today, we spend more than $2 trillion on health care each year, but only four cents out of every dollar is invested in prevention and public health. It's time to reverse that trend and put our health care dollars where they can do the most good.