Community View: Tackle chronic disease to control health care costs

By Bryan A. Liang

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, chronic diseases are the leading cause of death in California.

The most common chronic conditions cost the state $133 billion annually. By improving access to quality health care, we can break the stranglehold that these treatable chronic diseases have on our state.

Chronic illnesses--diseases that are long lasting and/or have recurrent symptoms such as hypertension and diabetes--afflict nearly half of all Americans.

In California, 20 percent of the population suffers from multiple chronic diseases. These individuals account for 60 percent of statewide health care expenditures. Yet much of this spending is avoidable.

A key step in the fight against chronic disease is expanding access to health insurance. Today, California has the sixth-highest uninsured rate in the country, with 18.5 percent of us lacking health coverage. Making sure chronic disease patients have insurance makes it likely they will receive necessary care to manage their condition.

So how do we expand insurance access? First, we need to get eligible Californians signed up for public health programs. Nearly 7 million uninsured California residents are already eligible for public health coverage, but have not signed up.

Second, many Californians are eligible for coverage through their employer but have not taken advantage of it. To get these individuals access, California should allow businesses to auto-enroll employees in health plans and provide subsidies to assist in their purchase.

Third, subsidies and tax incentives should be extended to small--and medium--sized companies to encourage them to offer health benefits to more employees.

The easier we make it for people to obtain health insurance, the more likely they will take advantage of it. By concentrating our efforts to fight the battle against chronic disease, a healthier California--both medically and economically--will result.

Bryan A. Liang is executive director of the Institute of Health Law Studies, California Western School of Law and co-director of the San Diego Center for Patient Safety, UCSD School of Medicine.