In a post on KQED’s Healthy Ideas blog, Alameda County Public Health Director Dr. Anthony Iton agrees that "access to a high quality system of affordable health care is an important human right and a necessary strategy for improving health and quality of life and reducing health disparities," but argues that to truly guarantee the highest attainable standard of health for Americans, we need to look beyond just reactive health care.

With health care reform a major national priority, we have a tremendous opportunity to make strategic investments in primary prevention that will reduce the burden of chronic disease and eliminate health disparities. The current health care reform debate is driven in large part by concerns about ever-growing, unsustainable costs. Immediate cost-containment efforts are necessary, but they alone will not solve the long-term problem— more lasting changes are needed. Chronic disease rates are the major force driving up the costs of health care. Primary prevention is a systematic process that promotes healthy environments and behaviors before the onset of symptoms, thus reducing the likelihood of an illness, condition, or injury occurring. The bulk of those preventive strategies, particularly the community-level strategies, occur outside of the health care system and are strongly influenced by social and economic policies particularly policies shaping land-use, employment, transportation, income, and education. California’s experience with tobacco control is arguably one of the clearest examples of the benefits of primary prevention on health status, mortality and health care costs.

Iton provides several example of community-level strategies that compliment insurance reform, including policies of mixed-use housing/zoning to encourage more walking and less pollution, universal preschool, and funding public transit. To maximize these effects, Iton argues that we must have new partnerships across governmental agencies, so that health departments are working in concert with other city and county agencies.

While Iton focuses on the community-level, his point has resonance as we consider how federal funds to help the economic recovery are being used. This is a crucial opportunity to being to think about how infrastructure and policies around transportation, education, and housing all directly impact the health of ourselves, our families, our neighbors and our communities.  This is a crucial moment in how Americans think about their health, and we must use all available avenues—from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to health care reform–to not just treat our illness, but to build a system that supports and encourages healthier lives.

For more on how you can support a human right to health care in the United States, visit the Amnesty International USA Action Center.

For more on The Opportunity Agenda’s work on health and human rights, visit our website.

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