All across the country, health officials are boasting about new federal grants, awarded yesterday, that will help them save money by improving the health of Americans. More than $100 million in Community Transformation Grants went to projects in 36 states to address the underlying causes of chronic diseases that drive the bulk of national health costs. The projects promote active living, healthy eating, smoking cessation and preventive services and focus on addressing the higher rates of disease among communities of color.

Funding comes from the crucial Prevention and Public Health Fund, authorized in the Affordable Care Act, to help slow the persistent growth of health costs by preventing disease. Since its creation, the $17 billion fund has been under attack from Congressional Republicans who oppose the ACA. Earlier this month, President Obama himself targeted the fund for $3.5 billion in cuts as part of his deficit reduction plan. The grants show why the fund is so important: it will reach into communities nationwide to improve the lives and health of everyday people.

Even some of those most opposed to the ACA scored some of the money. For example, the administration of Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, who has joined a federal lawsuit challenging the ACA, won $3 million. News reports quoted his administration talking about the grants helping to save money. Similar comments came from leaders in other states. “The best way to reduce health care costs is by living healthier lives,” said Live Well Omaha Executive Director Kerri Peterson of a grant to Douglas County, Nebraska.

California and Texas drew the most money — $22 million and $11 million respectively. Most of the money went to public health departments. One of the few community-based organizations to win a grant was My Brother’s Keeper in Mississippi, which works to improve the health of African-Americans.

Thirty-five grants support proven interventions, while 26 support communities seeking to build the capacity to undertake wellness projects. Those 26 provide a great opportunity for advocates and community members to get involved as project leaders organize an assessment of community needs, build coalitions, and devise a plan to be submitted for more funding.

Officially, project success will be measured through improvements in weight, nutrition, physical activity, smoking cessation and emotional well-being, according to Ursula Bauer, director of the CDC’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. But look also for a drop in long-term health costs over time.

Examples of specific initiatives include a South Dakota project to expand smoke-free, multi-unit housing and make streets and trails more suitable for walking and biking. They also include Texas plans to expand access to fresh produce in cities and towns.

A separate set of grants went earlier this month to seven national organizations to help expand the reach of the grants. Among those receiving money was the National REACH Coalition, a Community Catalyst partner that works in communities to address racial and ethnic disparities in health.

— Alice Dembner, Deputy Policy Director