Group blames chronic disease for high health care costs, calls for candidate action

RENO — A new statewide coalition has been formed to get the country’s presidential candidates to focus on chronic disease as the real driver of increasing health care costs.

Kenneth Thorpe, a professor at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta and chairman of the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease, said in an interview that unless policymakers from the president on down focus on preventing and controlling diabetes, hypertension and other chronic conditions, the country will never get control over its health care costs. Thorpe was in Nevada to announce the formation of a Nevada chapter of the group.

“We’ve come together to really focus on the growing burden that chronic disease plays in driving up health care costs,” he said. “We really want to get the presidential candidates to focus on what we think is real health care reform. Eighty-six percent of what we spend on health care is linked to chronically ill patients.”

The Nevada chapter is spending about $200,000 to publicize the issue ahead of the Democratic presidential debate next week in Las Vegas using billboards and newspaper ads. The coalition will also run television spots on CNN during the debates held in Nevada, including the Democratic debate on Tuesday and the Republican debate on Dec. 15.

Nationally the nonpartisan group includes a broad coalition of state and local leaders representing patients, health care providers, businesses and seniors. In Nevada, the newly formed state chapter includes representatives from Touro University, the University of Nevada School of Medicine, the Nevada chapter of the American Cancer Society and many others.

Looking at diabetes, the share of adults with the disease has doubled since the mid-1980s, Thorpe said. Many with diabetes don’t even know they have the disease and don’t get treatment almost until it is too late, he said.

What is needed is good primary care and follow through to ensure those with chronic conditions are doing what they need to do to stay healthy, he said.

“Today we have a system where there may be seven different physicians that aren’t working together to come up with a ‘whole person’ game plan on really managing the entirety of the health of that patient,” Thorpe said. “We have a payment system that really carves a patient up by different disease categories.”

The coalition said fundamental changes are needed to address chronic illness. Medicare, for example, will pay for bariatric surgery for weight loss, but won’t pay for new medications for weight loss. The Diabetes Prevention Program is an 18-week class run by the YMCA of the USA that has been very successful. It costs $350 but Medicare won’t pay for it either.

“Medicare is still in the mindset that we will pay for it once you’re sick,” Thorpe said.

The YMCA program alone would have an enormous impact on Medicare spending and the health of the Medicare population, he said.

Michael Hackett with Alrus Consulting, representing the Nevada Primary Care Association, the Nevada Public Health Association and the Nevada Tobacco Prevention Coalition, said all three groups have signed on with the chapter.

“Obviously from the point of tobacco we understand very clearly that diseases caused by tobacco are the most preventable,” he said.

John Packham, director of health policy research at the University of Nevada School of Medicine and co-chairman of the Nevada chapter, said: “Fifty-four percent of patients in Nevada have at least one chronic condition, sixteen percent have two, and twelve percent have three or more and new patients are diagnosed every day.

“Unless our nation’s leaders — including the next president — do more to lessen the burden of chronic disease in Nevada, the problem is going to get much worse,” he said.

Contact Sean Whaley at swhaley@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3900. Find him on Twitter: @seanw801

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