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The shocking new data just released on diabetes costs and what we can do about it

Published: 4/1/13
By Kelly Close

Earlier this month, we received a harsh reminder of just how massive a challenge America’s diabetes epidemic truly is. According to new ADA estimates, diabetes costs our country a whopping $245 billion in 2012, almost double the cost ten years ago in 2002. What’s driving this increase?

To start, the majority of that $245 billion – a combined 61% – comes from hospital stays and prescriptions for the treatment of diabetes complications. Add the fact that there are millions more people with diabetes now than there were in 2002, and you get a startling picture: while the per-person cost of diabetes is still troublingly high at $7,900 per patient, a disproportionate amount of that price results from poor control of blood glucose levels. If we want to reduce that $245 billion annual spending, this data suggest we need to focus our public policy both on preventing the disease in the first place (we’d love to see more resources put on both type 1 and type 2 prevention) and on helping those with it to stay as healthy as possible so as to avoid complications. Each day a person with diabetes doesn’t spend in the hospital, for example, is another $5,000 of savings.

Though conversations on the growing prevalence of diabetes and obesity are beginning, they have not been enough to cause meaningful nationwide changes.  There are certainly organizations like the Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) that are doing outstanding work to promote wellness, and I was heartened by what I saw and heard at their recent Building a Healthier Future Summit. As their name suggests, PHA is focused on one thing: corporate partnerships to end childhood obesity. They’ve done terrific work to date – Walmart revamping its supply chain to ensure that healthier food reaches its stores, Disney removing commercials for sugary snacks from its channels, and Reebok pledging millions ($30 million!) to encourage increased physical activity for children before school. However, these partnerships only go so far when they’re not assisted by substantive policy changes from the government and by active involvement from all Americans.

We know such actions can be controversial – just look at the strong, polarized reactions to New York City’s recently overturned soda ban. I applaud PHA and its corporate partners for working to remove unhealthy foods from supermarkets, and there’s much more to be done considering that our food policies present such a headwind to meaningful change. The scope of the challenge – and the role that food companies play in our deteriorating diet – is explored in Jim Hirsch’s Logbook on the bestselling book Salt Sugar Fat.

Here is one idea: If we want to make a long-term difference in what people eat, we need to end federal corn subsidies – and, if I had my way, start subsidies for fruits and vegetables – but that’s an intensely political issue… or, at least, it would be if anyone ever discussed it. I personally hope the First Lady starts this conversation, because what a legacy she could leave.

Think about physical activity: currently, only 4% of elementary schools offer daily physical education. PHA and Reebok’s joint efforts will bring their BOKS PE programs to 1,000 schools by 2015. That’s amazing, but it still leaves children from more than 60,000 elementary schools in this country without a solution – not to mention the middle and high schools that do not have daily PE (92% of middle and 98% of high schools). It’s not reasonable to expect corporate partnerships to solve a problem of that magnitude – we need policymakers to get involved, and we as voters are the people who can ensure that happens.

We are living in a magic time, as we have the knowledge, the medicine, and the technology to bring the diabetes and obesity epidemics under control and to keep people reasonably healthy at a reasonable cost. We can start by safeguarding our future and taking responsibility for the health of our nation’s children – as First Lady Michelle Obama said at the Building a Healthier Future Summit: “Now, we know that as parents, it’s not always easy to get our kids to eat what we serve them, but that doesn’t mean we ignore our responsibilities. I mean, we would never dream of letting our kids skip going to the doctor or learning how to add and subtract just because they don’t like it. And the same thing is true about eating healthy.”

That’s a compelling message about taking responsibility. We also need to be more willing as a society to make more ambitious changes. Fifty years ago, our nation’s willingness to set lofty goals built the Peace Corps, put astronauts on the Moon, and ushered in the Great Society. Now, in 2013, it’s time to put some of that can-do focus toward solving one of the most pressing economic and public health issues we have ever faced.

Very best,  

Kelly L. Close

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About the authors

Kelly L. Close is the founder and Chair of the Board of The diaTribe Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of people living with diabetes and prediabetes, and... Read the full bio »