04/23/2012 07:53 pm ET Updated Jun 23, 2012

Making the Healthy Choice the Easy Choice: Eliminating Health Disparities

Chronic diseases -- such as heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes -- are responsible for seven out of 10 deaths among Americans each year and account for 75 percent of the nation's health spending. Obesity alone is related to more than 30 illnesses, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some forms of cancer.

Unfortunately, disadvantaged communities are at higher risk for a multitude of preventable health conditions, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, HIV/AIDS, viral hepatitis B and C, and infant mortality. These devastating health disparities compromise the wellbeing of individuals, families and communities.

In fact, black children are four times as likely to die from asthma as non-Hispanic white children, and Hispanics are 1.6 times more likely than non-Hispanic whites to die of diabetes. Health disparities are intricately linked with social inequalities based on a variety of factors, including race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation and gender identity, gender, age, disability, geography, and religion. In order to improve the health of vulnerable communities, we must create and leverage opportunities to address the social determinants of health and promote health equity.

If we continue on this path, America will never get health care spending under control, the economy will suffer and our children will continue to be at risk of living shorter and less healthy lives than their parents.

Two years ago, the federal government made an historic investment into reversing health disparities and ensuring everyone who wants to be healthy can be. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) provides significant opportunities to improve the health of all Americans, including those in greatest need. The ACA created The National Prevention Strategy (NPS), which prioritizes prevention and wellness and aims to increase the number of Americans who are healthy at every stage of life. The NPS reflects the commitment of the 17 federal cabinet agencies and offices that are part of the National Prevention and Health Promotion Council to addressing health disparities, which is one of the Strategy's four strategic directions. We know that unless the health and non-health contributors to health outcomes are addressed, we will never create health equity in the United States.

In addition to the NPS, the ACA created the Prevention and Public Health Fund (Fund), which provides an unprecedented investment of $12.5 billion over the next ten years in the types of transformative activities proposed in the NPS. The Fund invests in proven, effective programs to prevent diseases and injuries in American communities and that help people make the healthy choice and stay happy and productive. Included in the Fund, the Community Transformation Grant (CTG) program represents a critical opportunity to improve the health of disadvantaged communities.

The CTG program invests in effective community-based interventions. Specifically, the program addresses the leading causes of chronic disease, such as tobacco use, obesity and poor nutrition, as well as health disparities. The CTG program aims to reduce the obesity rate through nutrition and physical activity interventions by five percent over five years. While achieving this goal would have important benefits for all Americans, saving an estimated $30 billion in health care costs according to a recent study, it is likely the gains would be most significant for disadvantaged populations.

Higher obesity rates persist in racial and ethnic minorities, those with less education, and those who make less money. The ACA, NPS, Fund and CTG program present seminal opportunities to improve the health of the most at-risk populations.

All Americans should have the opportunity to lead long, healthy and productive lives. And yet, it is projected that by year 2050, if no action is taken, one in two African-American and Hispanic-Latino children born this generation will develop type 2 diabetes as adults. This statistic is unacceptable because it is preventable. It is necessary to leverage the many opportunities available today in order to promote the future health of all Americans, especially those in greatest need.