- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 27, 2008


As the financial burden of health care continues to rise in this country, universal coverage consumes Washington’s health policy conversation.

However, discussions on the measures that promote personal responsibility and prevent diseases from their onset are rarely held.

If Congress is so determined to make health care affordable, the focus needs a shift to avoid these expenses in the first place. After all, 75 percent of health-care costs are prescribed to preventable diseases and problems such as obesity and diabetes, according to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

But wait, if eating right, exercising and regular screenings contribute to long-term health and cost savings, why are these practices largely avoided by the American masses?

Correct eating habits, for instance, have not changed for nearly 20 years, as 75 percent of Americans still don’t get enough fruits and vegetables in their diets. Although constantly bombarded with the notion we need to improve the way we eat, many people still lack the resources and knowledge to know what a healthy diet actually consists of or even how to achieve it.

Equally problematic, physical activity has hardly improved since 1990. However, with obesity rates doubling in the last 10 years, daily physical activity has become more important than ever.

Further, more than half of the CDC’s recommendations for preventing diseases advise Americans to participate in clinical screenings. Many of these tests can indicate disease possibilities up to 10 years prior to the illness actually plaguing the individual, but several don’t take advantage of the information.

Failing to practice healthy lifestyles has led to an increase in chronic diseases and health care costs. Although Type 2 diabetes is almost completely preventable, the amount of cases doubled to 20.8 million over the last 15 years, costing $174 billion in 2007 alone.

Under a universal coverage model, the focus is incorrectly on process and how health care delivery groups are paid. How about first focusing on preventive measures before the problems form a critical mass, sparing hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars?

If we truly care about health outcomes, let’s start at the beginning of what potentially ails the patient, not until she’s about to lose her leg to diabetes.

Revisiting the theme of prevention with a renewed emphasis on it would save public dollars, even deaths and distress. Fortunately, this is something Americans are interested in seeing more of, according to a new nationwide poll by Erickson Health — a leading proponent of preventive-based care. While 82 percent of registered voters don’t think Americans are doing enough themselves to prevent disease, the poll found a majority (67 percent) would like to hear more from the presidential candidates about the issue, thereby opening the gates of discussion on the topic.

Though clinical preventive health is equally important to personal health, just 14 percent of voters identified physicals and screenings as the most important preventive health-care practice.

“We know that preventive services such as mammograms, colonoscopies and simple dental exams are vital tools in the fight against serious disease,” Sen. Ben Cardin, Maryland Democrat, recently stated. “We now have to act on this knowledge. Procrastination costs lives and fuels the high cost of health care.”

If Congress wants to help the issue, they need to shift themes in the ongoing debate. Recently, prominent health-care professionals and senior congressional staff from both sides of the aisle were brought together to discuss current preventive health legislation.

The Politics of Prevention forum hosted folks such as renowned chronic disease expert Dr. Ken Thorpe, along with a bipartisan, pioneering group of senators and House members leading the charge on this effort. Those are the steps Washington should now take to build the bridges for action.

Surely the government can help by producing incentives and information about preventive health care, but Americans also need to stop relying solely on Uncle Sam to improve their health — its time for citizens to do their part as well.

You can bet no one voluntarily wants to pay more taxes, but everyone wants to create a healthier America. And taking the personal and clinical initiatives to avoid disease altogether can satisfy both wants.

The right discussion has finally begun on the Hill. But even if proper congressional action is taken, Americans need to take some of their own personal responsibility to see it through.

Armstrong Williams is a longtime Washington columnist and commentator.

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