Wellness provisions to pay dividends

It’s a new year on Capitol Hill. And as we usher in 2010, now is the time for all of us to cast a new, fresh perspective on our national healthcare debate as the House and Senate finalize the legislation in the coming weeks.

In the heat of the Senate floor debate last month, lawmakers, media, interest groups and the public focused much of their attention on controversial issues like public option, abortion and special Medicaid deals, as well as assertions — debunked by the Congressional Budget Office — that the healthcare bill will worsen our nation’s fiscal situation, while driving premiums even higher.

The simple truth is that the final healthcare reform bill will provide unprecedented security and stability for Americans who have insurance, and affordable options for those who do not.

Both the House and Senate bills include many provisions that will serve to lower costs for American families, American businesses and the government, while protecting our citizens from unfair practices that deny them care when they get sick.

And in these tough economic times, let us not forget that the costs in both bills are fully offset. Both bills rein in the growth of healthcare costs and are fully paid for, and actually begin to modestly bend the cost curve. The Senate bill is estimated to reduce the federal deficit by $132 billion in the first decade and up to $1.3 trillion in the second decade. The House bill contains significant deficit reductions, as well.

These are just some of highlights that helped win the support of groups representing Americans from all across the healthcare spectrum — from doctors and hospitals to patients and seniors, as well as consumer and employer groups.

But these are just the big-banner items.

What got lost in that firestorm were positive, albeit lesser-known, provisions that will help Americans lower their healthcare costs by incorporating healthy habits into their lifestyles.

As we expand coverage to 94 percent of all Americans and begin to move away from a costly and ineffective fee-for-service system, the healthcare reform bill also focuses on encouraging wellness and incentivizing healthy behaviors.

Why are these lesser-known provisions important?

Because we know that when people take better care of themselves and have improved access to primary healthcare, their healthcare costs go down.

For example, the final Senate bill includes a bipartisan amendment that I offered with Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) that incentivizes employers to reward employees for taking steps to lose weight if they need to, or stop smoking or begin to control their high blood pressure or high levels of cholesterol. In fact, employees can reduce their health insurance premiums by as much as 30 percent for taking any number of steps that will improve their health.

I also led a bipartisan effort along with Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to require chain restaurants with more than 20 locations throughout America to list calories on their menus and menu boards, and provide additional nutritional information to customers upon request.

With more Americans eating out, this commonsense step provides consumers with the tools and resources they need to make healthier choices every day.

Another little-known wellness provision that I authored allows $200 million in grants to small businesses to provide access to comprehensive workplace wellness programs.

While there have been many assertions that the healthcare bills dramatically cut Medicare benefits, in truth the final legislation will actually begin to close the so-called donut hole, significantly improving the value of the Medicare prescription benefit program to millions of seniors.

Moreover, in the future, Medicare participants will be eligible for annual physicals for as long as they live. Currently, they receive only one lifetime physical that Medicare pays for.

Not only is encouraging wellness and healthy behaviors critical to reining in the growth of healthcare costs, but it is something most of us can agree on.

With so much at stake, it is time for all Americans — both inside and outside Washington — to turn their attention to the 90 percent of this legislation that we all agree will help Americans live healthier lives and save money.

Carper is a member of the Senate Finance Committee.