Over the past few years, there’s been a push in this country to use our health care dollars more wisely. One way to do that is to shift the focus of our health care spending from treating disease to preventing it. We could save millions of dollars – and millions of lives, too.

But that isn’t the direction our leaders are taking. Since 2010, Congress has significantly cut the budgets of public health agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Health Resources and Services Administration. It has not fully funded the Prevention and Public Health Fund, which was created to support state and local efforts to provide more preventive care.

These devastating cuts threaten existing disease prevention programs. And the proposed federal budget for fiscal year 2014 will only compound the problem – unless our lawmakers recognize the value of investing in preventive care.

The concept of prevention makes sense to anyone who owns a car. Changing your oil regularly and getting maintenance checks can save you a lot of money on repairs down the road.

The same goes for preventing disease. If we pay for programs that promote immunizations and discourage tobacco use and obesity, the results will be less chronic disease (like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes), longer lives, less need for expensive medical treatments, and fewer lost work and school days. Individuals and communities would benefit.

Research shows that a

$3 billion investment in public health can yield more than

$16 billion in annual savings within five years.

But doing what makes sense isn’t always easy. The federal government has cut programs that could improve the health of our communities: immunizations, maternal and prenatal care, newborn screenings tests, medical care for rural and economically distressed areas, and programs that help prevent diabetes, heart disease, cancer and stroke.

In Montana, federal dollars provide a foundation for local health departments to keep our communities safe and healthy.

Smart public health programming has helped our state reduce rates of diabetes and deaths due to heart disease. But we still face serious challenges. Our state ranks 10th in the nation for binge drinking, and we have the fourth-highest rate of work-related deaths in the nation. Smoking rates among pregnant women still are unacceptably high, and we have the second-lowest childhood immunization rate in the country.

Until we seriously and consistently invest in public health, our nation will continue spending billions of dollars treating chronic health problems that can – and should – be prevented.

Rather than cut back on funding that can help Montana communities, our leaders in Congress should fully fund CDC, HRSA and the Prevention Fund. All of us should demand that they do so – if we want to shift our health system from one that focuses mostly on treating the sick to one that keeps people healthy in the first place.

Alicia Thompson of Great Falls is president-elect of the Montana Public Health Association. Ellen Leahy is a health officer with the Missoula City-County Health Department.

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