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Kind and Katen-Bahensky: The Budget Case for Combating Childhood Obesity

Parents will tell you that the obesity epidemic, which today affects one-third of America’s children, is now their leading health concern. Policymakers, business leaders and health care professionals share that worry. Childhood obesity is not only a serious health epidemic; it is also a perilous problem for the budget.

A new study, released today by the Campaign to End Obesity, points to the economic imperative of taking real action on obesity, especially when it comes to our children.

What we found interesting is that the study, conducted by two prominent conservative economists, both former Bush administration officials, concludes that the budgetary ramifications of failing to act on childhood obesity are far more costly than enacting policies to reverse obesity.

The authors point out that an array of evidence-based obesity interventions and treatment approaches can be both cost-effective and have major long-term savings, not only because they reduce obesity but because they can also prevent or reduce the occurrence of dangerous and costly secondary diseases such as diabetes and cancer.

Today, our nation spends $147 billion each year on obesity-related health care expenses, and this fails to count the billions more in costs to businesses, communities and families. Clearly, if we don’t address this epidemic, health care costs, already the fastest-growing area of federal spending, will continue to skyrocket. A McKinsey report recently projected that U.S. spending on obesity could be as high as $320 billion annually by 2018.

With these kinds of budgetary threats in mind, Congress passed the 2010 health care overhaul, which took a serious look at combating the childhood obesity epidemic.

Through new community-directed programs, real work is being done in Wisconsin and around the country to make healthy living more accessible to our children and their families. The law also enabled the secretary of Health and Human Services Department to ensure that certain medical services to prevent, diagnosis and treat obesity are more widely available and covered under federal insurance programs.

Finally, the law funded new demonstration projects to track and monitor healthy weight among children.

While these steps alone won’t solve the obesity crisis, they represent important new benefits and concrete steps that can and do make a difference.

Another opportunity for Congress to play a role is in the reauthorization of the farm bill this year. By reshaping our nation’s food policy to expand opportunities for farmers, promote local foods and make it easier for consumers to have access to healthy produce, we can take important steps toward combating obesity.

A compelling argument made by the authors of the study — and one that we think needs further examination — suggests that the Congressional Budget Office should revise its scoring window (from 10 years to more than 20 years) to reflect the true long-term burden of obesity on the nation’s economy and the real savings that stand to be realized.

This improved and more long-term scoring and data could help advance additional policy solutions to this epidemic and encourage additional strategic investments, from programs to promote physical activity in schools to tax incentives for investments in healthy lifestyles to insurance coverage for proven anti-obesity therapies.

Addressing the growing obesity epidemic is a challenge we all share. There is an important role for parents, the community and school leaders to play in making healthy living a priority and the easier choice for our kids. Business leaders can commit to making healthy lifestyles more accessible to workers and their families, while medical providers can do more to address obesity in patients.

And the federal government has an important role to play in investing the resources needed in those programs most likely to yield tangible health and economic benefits for our children and our future. As leaders, we owe it to our children to work together to make these commitments real.

Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) is a member of the Ways and Means Committee and co-chairman of the Congressional Wellness Caucus, the Congressional Fitness Caucus and the Congressional Task Force on Childhood Obesity. Donna Katen-Bahensky is president and CEO of University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics.

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