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This op-ed by Dr. Georges Benjamin was originally published on August 31, 2017 on Huffington Post

While most of us are enjoying the end of our summer, Capitol Hill is preparing for the next round of health care debate.

When Congress returns to business in September, the Senate will host bipartisan hearings on stabilizing health insurance markets and other measures to address concerns about our health system. The American Public Health Association has long called for both sides of the aisle to work together to improve health, and we applaud these senators for choosing a bipartisan approach to health reform over grandstanding and tribalism. But our lawmakers’ focus on insurance alone misses the true potential of reforming our country’s health system.

What if we refocused our efforts on actually improving our health? By moving our priorities upstream towards prevention and wellness before disease and illness, we can bend the cost curve and achieve what most of us want – a long, healthy and productive life. By prioritizing prevention and wellness we can break the cycle of paying billions of dollars to fix preventable health problems.

The Prevention and Public Health Fund sets aside millions each year to do just that: find innovative ways to prevent illness and injury and create healthy communities. It supports a range of efforts to prevent premature death, including everything from vaccinating against communicable diseases to addressing cardiovascular disease, and reducing tobacco use. While the fund makes up less than 1 percent of our government’s total spending on health care, its future is in jeopardy. Congress has already taken away $3.75 billion in planned increases for the fund over the last five years.

Although some in the Senate support it, many remain opposed to the Prevention and Public Health Fund for political reasons or because they lack of understanding about its transformational potential. For the last few years Congress has used its appropriation authority to determine how the fund is spent each year, and evaluations of the programs it has funded have demonstrated positive results and health improvements.

Dr. Georges Benjamin

Dr. Georges Benjamin

Despite its overwhelming success, the Prevention and Public Health Fund is at risk. It remains in Congress’s crosshairs as legislators try to reduce spending on health. What’s worse, we remain concerned that the fund may be eliminated in negotiations over health insurance coverage. If the fund is slashed in negotiations, Congress will let the enormous potential of creating a healthier nation slip through its fingers. Many illnesses and injuries that insurance pays for can be prevented if we invest in public health and prevention.

I hope that as members of Congress return and resume their debate over health care, they remember the human cost of poor health, beyond its effect on the insurance markets. I hope they remember what is at stake: lives, days of work, and quality time with family. I challenge policy makers to think about the extraordinary potential of a nation that puts prevention and public health first.

If Congress not only maintained, but increased the Prevention and Public Health Fund, imagine the healthy nation we could build together. What if every American, no matter where they lived, turned on the water tap and knew they would be safe from toxins like lead? What if we stopped an outbreak of food poisoning before it started? What if all kids grew up with access to nutritious foods and exercise? What if we invested in these evidenced-based preventive measures?

I urge our leaders to remember that the ultimate goal of all of this “health insurance stuff” is to preserve our health. We deserve insurance and the highest quality of health care, but we also deserve communities that are safe and healthy to begin with. There’s no doubt that boosting insurance markets is a necessary step in building a sustainable health care system, but sustainability is also impossible without prevention. Preserving the Prevention and Public Health Fund is an essential component of our national quest for better health. It is a best buy for our future.