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When it comes to health reform, Dr Tom Coburn: First, do no harm

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Community prevention is the essence of local control. It's about helping neighborhoods to work together with local businesses, community groups and local health departments to figure out the best ways to build health where they live--whether that's putting more fruits and vegetables on a child's school lunch plate, or making the local park safer so a mom doesn't have to put her kid in front of the tv. Community prevention is about supporting decision making, and health. at a very local level.

That's why I was so surprised last week to hear one of our most influential senators, Tom Coburn, who is not only a powerful political leader but a medical doctor as well, say he's going after $630 million from the 2011 Prevention and Public Health Fund. He called it a 'slush fund' and yet at the same time said that public health officials aren't granted enough leeway to allocate the funds as they see fit.

When Coburn became a doctor and promised to uphold the Hippocratic oath, he swore to "prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure." He should know that effective health care should emphasize keeping people healthy in the first place and that most public health officials across the country see prevention funding as desperately needed and designed to maintain people's health. And as a political leader he should understand that good health is good business.

That's exactly what's happening all across the country: communities are using the kind of money he's targeting to take control and take action, deciding for themselves just how to bring down the barriers to health where they live:

  • In Senator Coburn's home state of Oklahoma, where HALF of the adults are overweight, the Cherokee Nation is working on policies that support quality physical education programs, including a minimum of 150 minutes per week and elimination of screen time for childcare facilities, increasing physical activity in 10 of the 100 largest school districts.
  • Folks in La Crosse, Wisconsin decided to give local farmers a boost through local farm-to-school lunch programs. They'll have put 8,500 cups of fresh fruit and veggies on kids' lunch plates by the end of the year, and are putting money back into the local economy--plus helping make sure those kids grow up healthy and strong.
  • In Louisville, community members decided they needed healthy corner stores. By March 2012, they'll have opened nine stores, bringing literally thousands more servings of fruits and vegetables to local families. They're also providing local store owners with new equipment, business planning, and minor construction improvements--making the economy as healthy as the neighborhood.
  • In rural California, the West Modesto King Kennedy Neighborhood Collaborative has facilitated a partnership between Heifer International and Project UpLift, an after-school mentoring program. Teenage students from the local school visit the Heifer International farm to learn how to cultivate the land and plant and grow fresh, seasonal, organic produce. The students harvest the produce and take it to the Farmer's Market located in the low-income community of West Modesto. The students learn agricultural, business development and leadership skills while the community receives valuable access to affordable, accessible produce.

These communities are choosing smart strategies that strengthen neighborhoods, promote health and improve the economy--and healthier kids means less money spent on health care down the road. The $630 million Coburn is after is a drop in the bucket compared to the $168 billion that chronic disease costs us every year. Every dime invested in community prevention pays off--the American Journal of Public Health will publish a study next month that shows that reducing the prevalence of diabetes and high blood pressure by just 5 percent would save the nation about $9 billion a year in the near term, and $24.7 billion a year in the medium term.

Given that the US life expectancy just dropped for the first time in twenty-five years, we haven't a moment to lose. And that's why we're standing strong on prevention. We want to make sure families across the country have the right--and the resources--to decide for themselves how to keep their kids and their communities healthy, thriving and harm free.