Speeches & Floor Statements

Opening Statement: Alexander: Surgeon General Focus on Wellness Could Have Real Impact on Lives of Millions of Americans

Posted on November 15, 2017

When Dr. Adams and I met before his confirmation hearing, I said to him that if, as Surgeon General, he threw himself at one important problem, he could have a real impact on the lives of millions of Americans. 

At his confirmation hearing, he said, “I would also make wellness and community and employer engagement a centerpiece of my agenda if confirmed… Our health starts in the communities where we live, learn, work, play, and go to school.” 

Dr. Adams has said his first Surgeon General’s Report will focus on health and the economy.

It makes sense for that to be his focus, because there is a remarkable consensus that wellness – lifestyle changes like eating healthier and quitting smoking – can prevent serious illness and reduce health care costs.

This is important because the United States spends about $2.6 trillion treating chronic diseases. This accounts for more than 84 percent of our health care costs.

Today, Dr. Adams will talk to us about what local communities, businesses and other organizations can do to encourage people to live healthier lives, which will help reduce health care spending on chronic diseases. 

The Cleveland Clinic has said if you achieve at least four “normal” measures of good health, such as a healthy body mass index and blood pressure, and you see a primary care physician regularly and keep immunizations up to date, you will avoid chronic disease about 80 percent of the time. 

At a hearing we held last month on wellness I said that it is hard to think of a better way to make a bigger impact on the health of millions of Americans than to connect the consensus about wellness to the health insurance that 178 million people get on the job. 

One of our witnesses last month, Steve Burd, talked about an employee wellness program he implemented while CEO of Safeway that has reduced the biological age of employees by four years.

He said: “Given that 70 percent of health care spend[ing] is driven by behaviors, employers can have a powerful impact on both employee health and healthcare costs….healthcare costs continued to decline by 9 percent per year [at Safeway] with no material changes in plan design. Safeway’s health actuaries reported this continued cost reduction was due predominately to improved health status.”

Many employers have developed similar wellness programs to incentivize people to make healthier choices.

These programs may reward behaviors such as exercising, eating better or quitting smoking, or offer employees a percentage off their insurance premiums for doing things like maintaining a healthy weight or keeping their cholesterol levels in check. 

Last month we heard that that while both employees and employers benefit from lower health care costs, both also can benefit in other ways when people live healthier lives.

Michael Roizen the Chief Wellness Officer at the Cleveland Clinic, said, “The culture of wellness at the Cleveland Clinic has generated remarkable results that have led to shared benefits – healthier, happier employees, as well as lower costs for their self-funded insurance program, and lower costs for our employees and for the communities and patients we serve.”

In other words, a healthier workplace translates to the greater community being healthier.

In recent years, a growing number of organizations and communities have developed innovative programs to incentivize individuals to engage in healthy behaviors.

For example, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee partnered with local, state, and private organizations to fund community level initiatives across the state, such as “Fitness Zones” in Chattanooga, programs in rural counties to promote healthy habits, and an interactive elementary school program to keep kids moving.

An overall healthy community is more economically productive – there are fewer workplace accidents, less absenteeism, and a higher rate of engagement.

At his confirmation hearing, Dr. Adams also said not all national problems should have a response from Washington, D.C.

I agree – we do not get any smarter flying to Washington once a week.

Dr. Adam’s motto as Surgeon General is “better health through better partnerships,” and I hope this committee can be one partner going forward.

I look forward to hearing how community level partnerships and engagement can lead to healthier individuals, higher quality health care, and lower health care costs.