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Thursday, February 5, 2009

An American Wellness Society

How might the government change Americans' approach to wellness?

Recently heart-healthy diet guru, Dean Ornish, interviewed Senator Tom Harkin in Newsweek. Harkin, chairman of the subcommittee on appropriations and health, has taken on creating a working group to craft the prevention and public-health components of Obama's health-care-reform bill.

Harkin is passionate about wellness. He believes "we must recreate America as a "wellness society" focused on fitness, good nutrition and disease prevention—ultimately, keeping people out of the hospital in the first place.

"We spend untold hundreds of billions [of dollars] on pills, surgery, hospitalization and disability. But we spend peanuts—about 3 percent of our health-care dollars—for prevention," Harkin says.

This is all music to the ears of people like me who care about wellness and the future of American health care. Some other Harkin gems:

On starting good wellness behaviors early: Make sure that kids in the Head Start Programs get early education and information about what is healthy and what is good and have healthy snacks for them, too. In 2002, I took a few million dollars and I started a free fresh fruit and vegetable snack program in schools. My theory was this: if kids could get a fresh piece of fruit or vegetable for free, they would eat it.


On teaching good exercise skills: I'm looking at tying reimbursements for school meals to schools that have a physical exercise program, and/or giving bonuses to schools that have an exercise program.


On incorporating exercise into daily living: Part of my wellness initiative is to use the finance committee to put out tax incentives to workplaces that offer comprehensive wellness programs.
Allocate more Medicare dollars for early diagnosis and prevention with no copays—if you have a colonoscopy, there shouldn't be a copay; there shouldn't be a deductible.

On the importance of wellness: A robust emphasis on wellness is about saving lives, saving trips to the hospital and saving money, and it's the only way we are going to get a grip on skyrocketing health-care costs. To date, prevention and public health have been the missing pieces in the national conversation about health-care reform. It's time to make them the centerpiece of that conversation.

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