Healthcare: House bills 3092, 3144 aim to cut obesity rate and related illnesses

 As I have traveled throughout my district, it’s very obvious that this is indeed the case.  Small businesses are being crushed by increasing healthcare bills. Families are seeing their health plan benefits erode as they can’t keep up with higher premiums, co-pays and deductibles. And even while they pay higher costs, Americans are losing the very parts of their healthcare that they value the most, such as the choice of their doctor and the security that comes from knowing that they are covered if anything goes wrong.

However, in order to achieve reform, Congress must begin to face reality. Any meaningful attempts to create long-term, sustainable healthcare must begin with taking control of skyrocketing costs. And as a clinical dietitian for 25 years, I know that this can only be accomplished by addressing the alarming epidemic of obesity in America.

The obesity crisis is real in this country. According to a report published by the New England Journal of Medicine, the current generation of children in America may have shorter life expectancies than their parents for the first time in two centuries. In fact, the rapid rise in childhood obesity could shorten life spans by as much as five years if left unchecked.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 1976 and 1980 approximately 5 percent of youths aged 2 through 19 were identified as obese.  Compare that to a recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics that stunningly concluded that nearly one in five American 4-year-olds are obese.

If we do not adequately address obesity now, we can only expect this issue to grow worse as obese children mature into adulthood. In fact, a New England Journal of Medicine study found that children who are obese after age 6 have a 50 percent greater chance of being obese adults. And overweight adolescents have a 70 percent chance of being overweight or obese adults.

The consequences of obesity are devastating and manifold, including risk for a number of health problems such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and some forms of cancer.

Unfortunately, the epidemic is growing. Between 2007 and 2008, adult obesity rates rose in 37 states, while no state saw a decrease. And in 2008, more than 25 percent of adults were obese in 28 states, an increase from 19 states the year before.

How does obesity affect congressional efforts to reform the healthcare system? Cost.

The CDC estimated the total cost of obesity in the United States to be $117 billion. In 1998, medical expenses associated with obesity accounted for 9.1 percent of total U.S. medical expenditures. We can only assume the numbers have increased since then.

If we are serious about reforming our healthcare system, we need to get serious about controlling these preventable costs.

To that end, I have introduced two pieces of legislation to address this very problem: the Obesity Treatment and Wellness Act of 2009 (H.R. 3092) and the Healthy Communities Act of 2009 (H.R. 3144).

The first piece of legislation addresses the CDC estimate that approximately half the costs associated with obesity are paid through Medicare or Medicaid. However, while Medicaid will pay for diseases that result from obesity, it does not pay for nutrition, which can effectively treat the disease. This is a glaring and costly oversight that the Obesity Treatment and Wellness Act of 2009 seeks to remedy.

This legislation will promote healthy living and wellness by requiring Medicaid to cover medical nutritional therapy. Given the disproportionate prevalence of obesity amongst lower-income families and their children, circling in on this key demographic is crucial to controlling the epidemic.

The second piece of legislation, the Healthy Communities Act of 2009, sets up a five-year, public-private community grant program to combat obesity. Based on the successful program in my district called Healthy Armstrong, the bill would direct the secretary of Health and Human Services to award grants to communities who can form a diverse coalition of stakeholders, including parents, hospitals, school districts, health insurance companies, pediatricians and local employers.

The program’s emphasis would be on physical exercise, nutritional counseling and obesity prevention education. Each year, the program would have to meet certain benchmarks with regard to reducing obesity in order to continue to receive funding.  Therefore, we will not only demonstrably improve the health and well-being of the individual but improve the overall environment to encourage sustainable and healthy living.

Of course, the most important ingredient to combating obesity is just good old-fashioned physical activity. To get people moving and to promote my legislation, I am hosting a summer long fitness tour dubbed the “Congressional Hike and Bike District-Wide Tour.” I will be teaming up with senior groups, outdoor clubs and bicycle enthusiasts to host hiking and biking events in all seven counties of my district to encourage healthy living and wellness.

Only when we as a nation begin to think seriously about changing our routines to include a better diet and daily exercise will we begin to address the obesity epidemic. And only then will we rein in the overwhelming costs associated with it.

I will be urging my colleagues to join me in this effort. I sincerely hope that they do as the success of our reform efforts depend upon it.