Harvard Public Health NOW

November 21, 2008

Former Assistant Surgeon General Suggests Possible Health Agenda for Next President

The next president of the United States will face a myriad of health care challenges upon taking office in January, ranging from 46 million Americans without health insurance to a chronic disease pandemic, said Rear Admiral Susan Blumenthal, former U.S. Assistant Surgeon General and the first Deputy Assistant Secretary for Women’s Health. She spoke about, “A Health Agenda for the Next US President: Challenges and Opportunities,” in FXB G-13 the day before the presidential election. The talk was part of an ongoing nutrition seminar series.

Susan Blumenthal

“A perfect storm is occurring,” said Blumenthal.

She continued, “The changing face of our nation and world — more women, minorities, and seniors — the impact of the technology revolution, the importance of putting prevention first, the quest to make sure every person has access to quality, affordable health care, the double jeopardy of infectious and chronic diseases, the impact of global climate change and other environmental factors on the health of people, the scientific discoveries that are occurring including the mapping of the human genome, and the globalization of health. These are just a few of the issues our new president has to address.”

The economic crisis in the U.S. will worsen matters. “More people are going to lose their jobs and insurance,” she said, “and this will only add to human suffering and the spiraling health care costs in our nation.”

A global pandemic of chronic diseases, linked primarily to tobacco use and obesity, is making for a sicker world, as is a global food crisis, added Blumenthal. She is currently the director of the Health and Medicine Program at the Center for the Study of the Presidency in Washington, D.C. and a clinical professor at Georgetown and Tufts University Schools of Medicine.

“The bottom line is there is a tidal wave of chronic disease conditions that is robbing nations of human and economic productivity,” she said, noting that 80 percent of health care expenditures are related to patients with chronic diseases that are linked to preventable factors.

But she said there is a way to confront the problem of chronic illness. “We have the knowledge and the tools, but we are at a crossroads when it comes to health and disease,” she said. “We have to emphasize the power of prevention.”

She also said there are inexpensive treatments available for many of these conditions. “We have a whole new movement about chronic disease management and prevention that needs to be incorporated into our public health system,” she said.

She added, “We need a president who is going to address and fix our ‘sick care’ system and make it truly a health care system.”

Blumenthal said [now President-Elect] Barack Obama’s proposed plan to improve access builds on the existing employer-based system and allows people to keep what insurance they have or to buy into a new national plan that will include hundreds of choices similar to the Federal Employees Health Program offered to federal employees and their families. He has also proposed establishing a National Insurance Exchange that would link people to a choice of plans.

“He believes that if health insurance is made affordable, people will buy it,” she said. To that end, President-Elect Obama proposed during the campaign to emphasize outcomes measurement and increased use of health care technology to both cut costs and promote efficiency and effectiveness. At the same time, he has promised to significantly increase the research budget for the National Institutes of Health, expand funding for stem cell research, and increase global aid, she said.

While some wonder if there will be money available to do these things, Blumenthal said she believes that health will be a priority because it is critical to the economy, national security, productivity and well-being of the American people.

“This absolutely cannot be put on hold,” she said. “The health and wealth of America are intertwined. We’ve got to have a healthy, productive population and work force. This has to be a priority for the new president.”

-Michael Lasalandra.  Photo by Suzanne Camarata.