RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Pop quiz: How can you take health care reform into your own hands and cut costs without spending a dime, all in 15 minutes a day? If you answered, “get outside and take a walk,” you’d be dead on. Politics aside, finding a way to end obesity is the real key to the reform. A healthcare policy aimed at helping Americans stay at a healthy weight—and, especially, at preventing obesity in the first place—could transform the healthcare needs of America. But the concept of preventing health problems, rather than spending money on drug therapy and expensive diagnostic tests, is being largely ignored.
THE DETAILS: In an address given to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s first ever conference on obesity at the end of July, Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius said that ending obesity would save the healthcare system 50 percent more money than curing cancer. Sebelius’s comments came on the heels of a CDC report finding that obesity costs the U.S. a mind-boggling $147 billion each year, and that obese people spend 42 percent more money on medical bills than healthy people do. Obesity leads to a seemingly endless list of chronic diseases—including heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and high blood pressure. And it’s those chronic diseases that are most likely to bankrupt you and drain whatever insurance plan you may be enrolled in. According to another study released in July, 62 percent of the bankruptcies filed in 2007 were due to medical bills. “Chronic illnesses are the most common and enormous of medical expenses,” says Meg Gaines, JD, director of the Center for Patient Partnerships at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, an independent agency that helps people navigate and understand the healthcare system. “Heart diseases are by far the most expensive and medically intense,” she says.
Given all that, it would seem logical that ending obesity should be a key strategy in any healthcare reform proposal. However, in the entire 1,000-page version of the healthcare reform bill presented recently by the House of Representatives, the words “obese” and “obesity” don’t appear once. Instead, legislators have endorsed funding for screenings and tests for cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and other conditions that are often caused by obesity. But these tests don’t prevent anything, says Erika Schwartz, MD, medical director for Cinergy Health, an insurance company that provides low-cost health insurance and one that is trying to redirect its focus to preventive care; they just catch those diseases in their earliest stages.