- The Washington Times - Monday, February 27, 2006

Our nation’s veterans face a growing threat in the form of their expanding waistlines.

Speaking at the National Press Club, Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt, Surgeon General Richard Carmona and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson outlined a plan to keep our nation’s heroes in fighting shape after they have returned from the battlefield.

The joint HHS/VA plan, HealthierUS Veterans, will target cases of obesity and diabetes among the country’s nearly 25 million veterans. “It’s an economic matter and a personal matter. For the veteran, it’s no longer imperative that they are battle fit, but it’s essential to have basic health,” Mr. Leavitt said.

“It’s hard to imagine a greater threat facing our veterans. It will soon be the leading cause of death and disability among veterans,” said Undersecretary for Veterans Affairs Dr. Jonathan Perlin.

“We’re looking for the VA version of ‘The Biggest Loser,’” he said, referring to the weight-loss reality-TV show.

The plan to improve veterans’ health includes “increasing healthy eating and physical activity among veterans, their families and communities,” according to the VA and HHS.

According to the American Diabetes Association, 20 percent of veterans receiving VA care suffer from diabetes — 13 percentage points higher than the national average.

“Veterans are a population that is represented disproportionately with … disease,” Dr. Carmona said. “When you look out at all the disease burden we have, most of it is preventable.”

During the press conference, aides distributed copies of “prescription” cards that will be given to veterans whose body-mass index exceeds the national standard. The card includes a box to check recommending “you increase your physical activity and use a pedometer to keep track of your progress.”

A pamphlet distributed during the conference, “Move! Managing Overweight/Obesity for Veterans Everywhere,” advises, “Veterans have shouldered the extra burden of honor, duty and sacrifice, but … they do not have to carry the burden of extra weight.”

Mr. Nicholson said there were an estimated 55 million health care visits from veterans last year. “We’re estimating there will be 60 million visits from patient veterans this year,” he said.

Both Mr. Leavitt and Dr. Carmona explained that the improved dietary habits of veterans could reduce the overall tax burden for veteran health care costs. “By dealing with this now, we can reduce the costs of health care. We can drive out all that is preventable,” Dr. Carmona said.

According to the VA, its spending for 2004 was $63.5 billion, of which $29.1 billion went for health care. President Bush requested a $5.6 billion budget increase for fiscal year 2005, “primarily for health care and disability compensation,” the VA said.

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