Chronic Disease Costs "Staggering"

Hand holding money, over National Institutes of Health seal and caduceus
A report released Tuesday concludes that chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease are costing the American economy a whopping $1.3 trillion per year.

The analysis shows that lost productivity in the form of missed work days and poor work performance actually cost the economy more money than treating diseases. It has experts warning that the problem will only get worse as the American population grows older and fatter.

"The trajectory our nation is on is one that is unsustainable," says Richard Carmona, M.D., a former U.S. Surgeon General who is now chairman of a coalition called the Partnership to Fight Chronic Diseases.

The study found that treatment for seven chronic diseases including cancers, mental illnesses, heart disease, lung conditions, hypertension, stroke, and diabetes ran to nearly $280 billion in 2003. That was dwarfed by productivity costs of more than $1 trillion, however.

"We see that these numbers are staggering," says Ross DeVol, director of the Center for Health Care Economics at the Milken Institute, which conducted the study. The institute is run by Michael Milken, the 1980s Wall Street raider turned health activist.

"Not only do you miss work, but when you're at work to avoid lost wages, your productivity goes down," DeVol says.

Heart disease was the most expensive chronic disease at $65 billion in treatment costs in 2003, the report concluded. Utah had the lowest overall rates of the seven chronic diseases, while West Virginia had the highest.

But the numbers are small compared with what could happen if the nation's approach to chronic disease doesn't change, the report warned. Costs in lost productivity and treatment costs could climb as high as $4.2 trillion by 2023 if current trends are unchecked, researchers said.

That's because aging baby boomers are set to skew the nation's elderly population as they reach retirement. And millions of people who are now obese or becoming overweight will soon start costing the economy money.

"Much of this cost is avoidable," researchers for the study write.

Future Trends

Milkin's group recommends a major overhaul of how the country deals with chronic diseases, calling on policy makers to "renew our commitment to achieving a healthy body weight." Doctors and other health care providers should also be paid to manage and prevent chronic illnesses, instead of getting most of their income from treatments, the report recommends.

Carmona says he's been traveling in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other early presidential primary states pressuring candidates to make disease prevention part of their health care platforms.

"We want to make sure this issue is on their political agendas," he says.

By Todd Zwillich
Reviewed by Louise Chang
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