In response to a growing obesity epidemic, the federal government has a responsibility to do more than urge Americans to eat less and exercise more, says Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah), chairman of the Joint Economic Committee.
In his opening remarks at a morning hearing today on the future of America's health, Bennett said 300,000 Americans will die this year from illnesses related to overweight and obesity. The government ought to scientifically re-evaluate the widely disseminated nutritional food pyramid developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bennett says. He notes the apparent effectiveness of diets that advocate reduced consumption of carbohydrates, which form the base of the USDA food pyramid.
"There is good science," says U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, M.D., but a large part of the problem is one of low health literacy. "Overall, we are a health illiterate society. We don't know what is science and what is hype."
Carmona says a group of representatives of HHS and USDA is meeting to review elements of the food pyramid, but he did not have available a date for release of a report of that group's findings.
Another key issue is the affordability of nutritious food for low-income Americans, says Diane Rowland, executive vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation.
"Food that is the cheapest is often the worst for them," Rowland says. "The 99-cent meal is part of what we have to deal with."
Committee members also questioned James Oatman, senior vice president of Fortis Health, a health insurance company that specializes in the individual and small group markets, about how health plans can build incentive structures into their products for members to live healthier lifestyles.
Oatman says Fortis Health offers medical savings accounts (MSAs) that help limit out-of-pocket expenditures for sick people. He says the population who purchase that option is representative of the business as a whole and not adversely selected by younger, healthier people, as many might surmise. Half the people who buy Fortis Health MSAs previously had no insurance at all, Oatman says.
Research under way at the Urban Institute suggests that lack of insurance during late middle age leads to significantly poorer health at age 65, and that continuous coverage in middle age could lead to a $10 billion-per-year savings to Medicare and Medicaid, Rowland says.
Rowland stresses that lack of insurance prevents many from accessing the benefits of prevention and wellness programs employers and insurers are starting to offer.
"For many Americans, the gaps won't be closed by healthy behavior alone," Rowland says.