“I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.” These are the words of the Hippocratic Oath, an ancient vow that has been recited by physicians for centuries. However, with seven out of 10 deaths in America attributable to largely preventable chronic illnesses, including heart disease, stroke, chronic lung disease, diabetes and some types of cancer, we have yet to see these words put into practice. Such is the history of our nation’s health care — or, perhaps more appropriately, “sick care” — system, where 75 percent of today’s U.S. health care dollars are spent on chronic illness and only three to five percent to prevent these diseases. Until now. As implementation of the recent health-reform legislation begins, our nation is finally putting prevention into practice. By providing significant financial support for preventive services and programs, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) builds the foundation for a prevention revolution and moves our country closer to making Hippocrates’ vision a reality today.
Thanks to the new law, patients now will receive free preventive services at the doctor’s office. The ACA mandates that private health insurance plans established since March 23, 2010, must cover, without cost sharing, the services recommended by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Additionally, as of September 23, 2010, all insurance plans must include these preventive services with their annual enrollment cycle except for those plans that have been grandfathered. This requirement will also apply to Medicare by the year 2011 and to Medicaid on a state-by-state basis. Recent research has shown that providing just five of these services — colorectal and breast-cancer screenings, flu vaccines, counseling on smoking cessation and regular aspirin use — could avert as many as 100,000 deaths every year. As a result of these new provisions, millions of Americans will now have free access to these preventive services and others, including additional cancer screenings, routine check-ups, vaccinations, prenatal care, and counseling regarding smoking, alcohol use, nutrition and obesity. This expansion of coverage represents a leap forward in our nation’s shift towards a prevention-oriented health-care system, to the benefit of millions of people. However, what happens in the clinic is only one element of a comprehensive public health approach that is needed to make this transformation a reality.