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HHS Lays Out Path for Prevention

By Jane Norman, CQ HealthBeat Associate Editor

June 16, 2011 -- A national prevention strategy that was authorized in the health care law and that Health and Human Services (HHS) officials say sets a direction and priorities for better health has been unveiled.

With many U.S. deaths related to chronic disease and rampant obesity among children and adults, federal officials say it's urgent to act in a comprehensive way. Heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease, strokes and unintentional injuries are responsible for 66 percent of all deaths.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said at a press conference that the strategy builds on improvements in prevention made in the law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152) and will apply across federal agencies. "They are all committed to working together," she said.

The Agriculture Department, for example, will work on healthier school lunches. More walkable neighborhoods will be a priority for the Transportation Department. And cleaner air is the responsibility of the EPA, she said.

"The administration is laying the foundation to help transform our health care system from a system focused on treating the sick to one that's focused on keeping every American healthy," said Melody Barnes, director of the Domestic Policy Council at the White House.

Surgeon General Regina Benjamin said there's no funding directly linked to the new strategy, but rather it lays out what the federal government and communities should be doing. Some of the suggestions are already under way, she said.

The strategy was drafted by members of the National Prevention Council, which is made up of representatives from 17 federal agencies. Council members consulted with an advisory body and members of the public.

The strategy says that:

  • Prevention begins in communities and homes, not just in the doctor's office.
  • Preventive care such as immunizations and cancer screenings should be available, as it will mean better health and lower costs.
  • Educating people about prevention and health in a way that's easy for them to understand will help them make better choices.
  • It's important to try and eliminate disparities in health.

Specifically, the strategy focuses on an end to tobacco use, preventing drug and alcohol abuse, healthy eating, physical activity, avoiding injuries and violence, reproductive and sexual health and mental and emotional well-being.

Jeff Levi, chairman of the advisory group, said it's the first time government agencies have come together in such a prevention effort. The challenge will be for the government to keep its focus that prevention is part of everyone's core mission, he said.

"We have the leadership, and that's reflected here," said Levi. "Now it needs to become the culture of each of these agencies."

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