Booster Shots

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Boosting health and the economy

March 10, 2009 | 10:10 am

Public health advocates are praising the $1 billion for disease prevention and wellness programs included in President Obama's economic stimulus package but say that it is only a fraction of the billions needed to keep the country  healthy.

The United States spent about $35 billion a year on disease prevention in 2008, or about $17 per person, according to Jeffrey Levi, executive director of Trust for America's Health, a Washington-based advocacy group. That compares with $2.4 trillion spent on treatment.

According to the ounce-of-prevention argument, spending on the former would help whittle down the latter.

Public health spending covers a wide variety of programs, including inspecting restaurants, tracking tuberculosis cases, providing vaccines, preparing for disasters and promoting exercise and nutrition.  Such services are intended to counter, among other things, food poisoning outbreaks, the spread of infectious diseases and the surge in chronic conditions such as obesity and diabetes.

But faced with a financial crisis, local and state governments are cutting public health spending. More than 11,000 public health jobs were eliminated in 2008, Robert M. Pestronk, executive director of the National Assn. of County and City Health Officials, said during a teleconference this morning. That, he said, is the equivalent of two states completely shutting down their public health departments.

The teleconference was called to publicize the release of a report called "Shortchanging America's Health: A State-By-State Look at How Federal Public Health Dollars Are Spent," produced by Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

"It's essential that as the country considers ways to reform its health system, we not only think about providing quality healthcare to everyone but that a strong public health program has to be the cornerstone," Pestronk said.

-- Mary Engel