Johanns Wrong to Defund Vital Public Health Fund

Re-printed by permission of the writer, of Omaha, who is director of government relations for Nebraska at the American Cancer Society.

First published as an OpEd in the Omaha World-Herald August 25, 2010.

stethoscopeWhile undertaking a laudable effort to address the concerns of small businesses, U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns has jeopardized one of the key provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – a renewed focus on disease prevention and wellness.

During the health care reform debate, one thing that the Nebraska congressional delegation unanimously agreed on was that it is necessary to place an increased focus on disease prevention and wellness as the only viable way to transition our broken “sick care” system into a properly functioning health care system.

This spring, Congress made a historic investment in public health through the creation of the Prevention and Public Health Fund as part of the Affordable Care Act. The fund would provide a dedicated stream of resources to pay for much-needed preventive services, community-level prevention and public health. We are already seeing the benefits of this fund in action, as investments are being made in state and local tobacco cessation, obesity prevention and nutrition and physical activity.

But now this critical program is in jeopardy. Sen. Johanns has proposed an amendment to the Small Business Jobs and Credit Act to repeal a provision in the Affordable Care Act that closed a tax loophole by requiring businesses to report purchases of more than $600 on their federal taxes. To pay for this provision, the Johanns amendment proposes a cut of $11 billion out of $15 billion from the Prevention and Public Health Funding budget, effectively eliminating the program altogether. This amendment also would seriously weaken other important aspects of the health care reform law.

Cancer-fighting volunteers have worked hard at the national, state and local levels to increase prevention funding and transform our “sick care” health system to focus more on health and wellness. Any cuts to the program would be a step back for cancer patients and their families.

During his term as governor of Nebraska, Johanns supported numerous efforts to address disease prevention. He endorsed and signed into law the Health Care Cash fund, utilizing millions of dollars in annual payments from the tobacco industry to create and support a statewide public health system; foster improvements in behavioral health; ensure respite care for families struggling to provide care for children and adults with chronic disease and/or mental health issues; and create significant funding for Nebraska’s medical research centers.

It also should be remembered that Johanns, as governor, signed a 30-cent cigarette tax increase into law in 2003. This was the first important increase in tobacco taxes in many years and has resulted in dramatic decreases in the numbers of adults and kids who smoke.

Another commendable achievement during Johanns’ term as governor was the passage of a law providing treatment for women diagnosed with breast or cervical cancer. The law built on the already excellent Every Woman Matters early detection program and still provides treatment funding for women diagnosed with these cancers as a result of early cancer screening through the program.

Disease prevention and preventive services are at the core of improving America’s health care system. Every day, 1,500 people in America die from cancer. Sixty percent of these cancer deaths could be prevented by applying proven prevention and early detection strategies. However, prior to the Affordable Care Act, less than 4 percent of all federal health care spending went toward prevention and early detection.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has offered an alternative to Sen. Johanns’ amendment that would repeal the tax provisions. However, instead of cutting the Prevention Fund, this solution would tax the largest oil producers.

This amendment – or a similar amendment that would relieve the burden on small businesses and nonprofits without repealing such an important and widely supported measure within the Affordable Care Act – should be adopted to maintain the commitment to public health and prevention.

Historically, Sen. Johanns has been a champion for prevention measures. Senators must now work together, across party lines, to find a sensible resolution to protect small businesses while maintaining the Prevention and Public Health Fund.

If we took money away from this fund, it would be devastating for our health care system and for so many cancer patients and their families.

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