Anne Warhover: Prevention can improve health care

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With Colorado’s economy still lagging in many respects, how can we as a state improve health and cut costs? Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” holds many of the answers.

Although health care already accounts for a substantial chunk of the state’s budget (not to mention the cost to local businesses), results from the 2011 Colorado Health Report Card suggest we should get more bang from our health care buck in this time of harsh economic realities.

Released annually by the Colorado Health Foundation in collaboration with the Colorado Health Institute, the latest report card shows the state is making encouraging progress in some areas. Notably, the percentage of children without health insurance declined from 12 percent in the 2010 report to 9 percent in the 2011 report. This is good news because children with coverage are more likely to receive care, stay healthy and avoid serious complications (and costly emergency room visits).

But while Colorado is making gains in coverage for children and adults and vaccinations for older adults, the report shows that we lost ground in other important areas, including prenatal care (where we rank No. 31 among states) and dental care (where we fell to No. 38).

Although Colorado still has the “leanest” adult population, our obesity rate increased from 19 percent to 22 percent between the 2010 and 2011 report cards. With the increase, Colorado loses the distinction of being the only state in the nation with an obesity rate lower than 20 percent.

Not only do rising obesity numbers weigh heavily on Coloradans’ health, they also impose a huge burden on the state’s economy. One study estimates the economic impact of obesity for Colorado at $1.6 billion per year.

Clearly, Colorado can — and must — do better. It’s a fact that health and health care are intermingled. But it’s increasingly important to understand the relationship between our physical well-being and our economic health.

While implementing policies to close health insurance coverage gaps and improve primary care certainly would help many Coloradans, research shows we can improve our well-being and rein in costs by investing in programs that prevent disease and promote good community health.

According to The Trust for America’s Health, an annual investment of $10 per Coloradan in community-based prevention efforts could save more than

$232 million annually in health care costs after five years, a $5.05 return for every $1 invested.

Unfortunately, despite the potential cost savings, prevention efforts represent less than 5 percent of every dollar spent on health care in the United States.

Colorado has plenty of examples of effective and efficient prevention initiatives that improve health and save money, such as Invest in Kids, Cavity Free at Three and LiveWell Colorado. These programs, all of which receive support from the Colorado Health Foundation and many others, show that prevention doesn’t need to cost a lot of money to be effective when it is implemented wisely.

By investing in innovation and practical health policies, Colorado can improve its health while saving a “pound of cure” — making the state (not to mention, Dr. Franklin) proud.

Anne Warhover is the president and CEO of the Colorado Health Foundation.

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