Millions for preventative education: No big deal, providers say

Friday, February 28, 2003

WASHINGTON, D.C. - A $125 million proposal designed to provide U.S. cities and states with additional funding to help prevent illnesses such as diabetes, obesity, and asthma hopes to open America’s eyes to prevention methods of healthcare and cut costs on the millions spent each year on treatment.

But while industry suppliers believe it will provide opportunities for prevention education programs and may eventually reduce the cost of treatment over time, many feel it’s a long road and will depend on the individual at risk making a commitment to change their lifestyle.

Tommy Thompson, secretary of Health and Human Services, announced in late January the Bush administration’s plan to ask Congress for the money to help in disease prevention. Described in the proposal, cities and states would compete for the funds, and 10 to 12 applicants could receive federal grants as early as next year. The funding coincides with President Bush’s program “Healthy Communities,” introduced last year.

“It has merit,” said Jerome Feitelberg, president of Alameda Drug in Alameda, Calif. “But a lot of HMOs have tried (preventative care). Behaviors are hard to change. People are going to do what they want to do. How are we going to modify behavior? That is the question.”

Currently, a large majority of suppliers do not spend much, if anything, in preventative care because they say most health insurance companies do not cover it.

“Nobody spends anything in preventative care,” said Rick Ferris, CEO of Ivedco, a company in Peron, Ariz., specializing in aerosol therapy equipment. “(Preventative care) clearly is a part of the whole premise of HMOs, but it ended up not being the case.” HME

David Williams, director of government for Invacare Corp. in Elyria, Ohio, echoes Ferris’s comments and adds he doesn’t think the amount proposed is enough to make a difference.

“$125 million is nickels and dimes,” he said. “Basically (the money) will be used for research, I assume. But it really wouldn’t change a thing. (Preventative) care is not a big part of the business.”

Thompson has been quoted in the Washington Post and New York Times as calling the health insurance companies “wrong-headed” for emphasizing acute illness treatment and not prevention measures. He said the health care system must change from one that “treats disease to one that avoids disease through wiser personal choices.”

Through the proposal, Thompson said he wants to expand coverage of preventive services under Medicare. Thompson said he hopes this proposal will get the ball rolling by getting health insurance companies to “change their attitudes and get more involved in prevention,”

However, it is also a change, one supplier says, that individuals with these acute illnesses must be willing to make in order for its goal to create a healthier America and healthcare costs.

“Awareness is wonderful, but you can’t force people to diet and exercise,” Ferris said. “If the money is used to educate, great, it’s the first step. But I’m not an optimist because I’ve seen a lot of negative. (Thompson’s program) is only going to help as much as the individual is willing to change.” HME