Taking Clinton’s Health Agenda from Good to Great


By Kenneth E. Thorpe |

Hillary Clinton wants to change the way we treat mental illness and drug addiction. As she put it at a recent campaign stop, too many American lives “are either being totally undermined or shortened” by these devastating conditions.

She’s absolutely right, and Secretary Clinton deserves credit for making mental health and substance addiction so central to her agenda. Reducing their enormous social burden needs to begin with significant breakthroughs in treatment.

More than 42 million American adults suffer from some form of mental disorder,  while another 40 million fight some form of substance addiction.  Although these illnesses can be tragic in their own right, they are part of an even more dire health crisis: a growing epidemic of chronic diseases.

In the next 15 years, 80 percent of Americans will suffer from at least one chronic disease — illnesses that include everything from diabetes to schizophrenia.  Treating these conditions now accounts for 86 cents of every dollar spent on healthcare. Over the next decade and a half, these conditions are on pace to cost our economy an astounding $42 trillion.

Fortunately, these trends aren’t inevitable. But preventing this bleak future will require a comprehensive strategy aimed at promoting healthy lifestyles, expanding access to care, and igniting medical innovation.

When combined, these three approaches can help avoid as many as 169 million cases of chronic illness in the coming years, according to a recent analysis by IHS Life Sciences. The savings to our economy would total as much as $6.3 trillion.

Many of Secretary Clinton’s health policies would make important progress towards this goal. In particular, her promises to expand coverage and boost funding for community health centers are deeply encouraging.  But she also needs to get rising insurance costs under control so that patients can access the newest and best medicines.

A new national survey from the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease reveals many Americans are drowning in excessive insurance costs. Four in ten say that their out-of-pocket health costs have gone up over the previous year.

And these rising expenses are hitting our most vulnerable citizens the

hardest: nearly a third of seniors report that insurance premiums are the biggest healthcare-related drain on their family budget.

Worse still, many insurance companies throw up administrative blockades that prevent enrollees from receiving timely care. Fully seven out of ten surveyed report having trouble with their health insurance over the previous year. Common complaints include difficulty finding an in-network doctor and the denial of coverage for a treatment recommended by a doctor.

Reducing insurance cost-sharing and improving plan benefits would boost access to needed care for the chronically ill. Too often, even if these patients have insurance, they still can’t afford the recommended treatments because their benefits are so thin. They’re burdened with high deductibles, co-pays, co-insurance, and other costly features.

Secretary Clinton’s pledge to tackle the issues of mental illness and drug addiction is worth celebrating.  But patients facing high cost sharing are less likely to use needed health care services, resulting in even worse health care outcomes. Removing these financial roadblocks to seeking care is important for all chronically ill patients. Outlining approaches to reduce these barriers is likely to reduce overall spending and improve health care outcomes.

  • Kenneth E. Thorpe is professor of health policy at Emory University and chairman of the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease.

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