A Food Writer Brings Perspective to the Budget Battles

Sure, the topical thing to do in this space today would be to comment on the President’s deficit reduction speech and the contrast between the Obama budget plan and the one put forward by Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI).

But there will be plenty of time to do that.  This debate over our nation’s priorities and how best to reduce the debt will be going on for months to come.

Instead, I wanted to share an item that caught my eye because I found it fascinating that it took someone other than a political or economics journalist to put the current budget wars into a proper perspective.  Mark Bittman, the food columnist for The New York Times Magazine, pointed out in an online commentary this week that, by the year 2030, the cost of treating heart disease in the United States will escalate to $800 billion.   And incidences of diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are projected to reach a point at which every other American will have either Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, which will cause cumulative treatment costs to rise to $500 billion.

So that’s over $1 trillion in future costs connected to just two chronic diseases.  By comparison, the recent congressional budget fight that almost resulted in the federal government shutting down was over a small fraction of that, $38 billion.

Bittman’s point is that many of our healthcare costs – and, subsequently, costs to taxpayers because of the number of Americans receiving care through Medicare or Medicaid – can be addressed through better diet.  He’s right, but the point is bigger and broader than that.

It is going to be impossible to get a grip on future healthcare costs unless our nation makes wellness and disease prevention an urgent priority.  Today, the treatment of chronic disease is responsible for 75 cents of every healthcare dollar we spend in this country.  And if projections are correct on the significant increases in heart disease, diabetes, pulmonary illness and various cancers, huge budgetary outlays in both the public and private sectors are going to be unavoidable simply to treat a less healthy populace.

Many employers and communities have made tremendous progress in developing incentive programs to encourage individuals to live healthier lifestyles and seek diagnostic tests and preventive care.  We need to take these success stories and expand them so they can benefit a nation. 

Now, I don’t expect the upcoming budget debates to focus on how we can get more Americans to quit smoking, eat healthier, get exercise and see their doctor for regular exams and blood tests, but if we don’t give wellness and prevention at least as much attention as, say, appropriations for public radio, then aren’t we missing the point?