07/31/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How to Save America $16 Billion and Spare Millions from Disease

We know we're in an economic crisis. But at a time like this, when the housing market and gas prices dominate headlines, we can't forget one of our biggest long term economic concerns: the incredible amount the US spends on health care. We spend $2 trillion a year on health care (more than any other country) while staggering amounts of serious diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease just keep getting worse. Take a good look at our risk factors, and you'll see why: two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, one in five Americans does not engage in any physical activity, and one in five adults smoke. How do we expect to compete in the global economy if our workforce isn't healthy enough to be competitive?

The good news is, many of these diseases are very preventable, and if we'd just make some small changes in our behavior, we could make some serious progress.

Last week, a non-profit called Trust for America's Health (which I head) connected the dots and released the hard math, showing just how much we could save by simply preventing disease, instead of getting sick and stuck with the tab. We found that if we invested just $10 per person in common-sense public health initiatives, we could save a whopping $16 billion annually within just 5 years. Our findings are outlined in a report we released last week called Prevention for a Healthier America .

Our researchers found that many effective community-level prevention programs can help Americans become more physically active, eat more nutritiously, and stop smoking - and these programs often cost less than $10 per person and lower rates of diseases without using any medical care. The evidence shows that implementing these programs in communities would reduce rates of type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure by 5 percent within 2 years; reduce heart disease, kidney disease, and stroke by 5 percent within 5 years; and reduce some forms of cancer, arthritis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease by 2.5 percent within 10 to 20 years.

It's not exactly rocket science. These programs simply break a cycle of costly health conditions like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, with initiatives that make it easier for people to make healthier choices. They promote physical activity by creating more walking trails. They promote diets full of fresh fruits and vegetables with farmers markets and accessible supermarkets for city dwellers. They keep supervised playgrounds open later, and place healthier snacks in school vending machines. Every one of these initiatives happens without clinical care or pharmaceuticals.

Sen. Tom Harkin laid it out very simply last Thursday, when the report was released. He said, "Instead of continuing to spend hundreds of billions on unnecessary disease and disability, let's move more of our health-care dollars upstream. Instead of spending only three percent on wellness and prevention, how about spending five percent, 10 percent, or 15 percent?"

We can achieve aggressive health reform amidst the one of the biggest economic downturns we've ever had, with a straight face and a mind to solve both problems. Fresh solutions lie right in our own backyard -- all we need to do is give them a chance to work.