The price of chronic disease

RA is a painful, debilitating disease for which there is no cure. It’s called a “chronic disease” because once you get it, you’re usually stuck with it for life, no matter how long or short that may be. 

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Chronic diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis, are the most prevalent and preventable health problems we face.

And they are also the most costly; treating people with chronic disease accounts for more than 75 percent of the nation’s $2 trillion spent annually for medical care.

Of the 47 million Americans without health insurance today, it’s estimated one-third suffer from chronic disease. That’s 16 million people living with a serious, lifelong disease who lack the insurance needed to cover care for an expensive disease. If left untreated, they will be sentenced to a life of pain, disability and, often, premature death.

The good news is that chronic disease, while incurable, can be effectively managed if caught early. Because Elizabeth was fortunate to have health insurance and got regular check-ups, her doctors were able to discover her condition relatively early and immediately begin treatment to slow the degeneration of her joints.

But keeping Elizabeth insured has also come at a price. Her family pays $2,000 a month for just one of her medications; add to that the high deductibles and co-pays for blood tests and procedures, and the price tag is overwhelming. Elizabeth’s illness is threatening to drive her parents into bankruptcy.

There is relief in sight for Elizabeth’s family and those who lack insurance to cover chronic disease prevention and care. The healthcare reform legislation being considered by Congress would ensure every American has access to adequate, quality healthcare, including those with chronic disease. With its passage, families like Elizabeth’s could avoid bankruptcy because the legislation prohibits lifetime or annual caps on essential medical care. The reform bill would also reorient the system to focus on early detection and disease management, so that fewer people will be forced to utilize high-cost, reactive medicine and emergency care.

Defenders of our current system argue that, when worse comes to worst, a person can always go to the emergency room and get care.

But as we know, the costs for this kind of last-ditch care are enormous, affecting the bottom line for everyone in the U.S. healthcare system. For those with chronic disease like Elizabeth, the emergency room is too little, too late, offering nothing in the way of preventative care.

Elizabeth knows she will very likely end up in a wheelchair, but she hopes that by actively managing her disease, she can delay this fate.

With her RA under control, she is able to pursue the skills and education that would give her a better chance of getting a job and being a contributing member of society, even if bed-stricken. It’s the hope of a reasonable quality of life that keeps Elizabeth and her family going, even at the height of her symptoms.

We can prevent Elizabeth’s family from going into an unnecessary bankruptcy and make sure that others with chronic disease receive the treatment they need to live fuller, more productive and happier lives. But we have to pass healthcare reform to make it happen.

Moran is a member of the House Appropriations Committee. He serves on the subcommittees on labor-HHS-education; defense; and interior-environment.