As House Republicans hammered away this week at federal spending, they took another whack at the Prevention and Public Health Fund. But if their goal is really saving money, they just hit their thumb instead of the proverbial nail.

The Affordable Care Act established the Prevention Fund and allocated $15 billion over the next decade to help shift the focus of our health system from treating diseases to preventing illness. The ultimate goal is improving the health of Americans and reducing long-term health costs. Already, the Fund is supporting state and local initiatives to reduce obesity, cut tobacco use, prevent HIV/AIDS and train more public health workers.

This year, it will also fund the Community Transformation Grants, an innovative program to support local efforts to reduce chronic disease and health disparities. Expanding prevention initiatives is one third of the package needed to control health care spending, along with reducing waste and occasional bad care in Medicaid and Medicare, and cutting prices and high administrative costs in the private sector.

But Republicans in Congress have repeatedly targeted the fund for repeal, or attempted to take its funding for other purposes. Yesterday, amid claims that the money provides a “slush fund” for Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the Republican-controlled House voted 236 to 183 to repeal the fund and rescind all money not already spent. This struck a political blow against the Affordable Care Act, but if the repeal were to pass the Senate and get signed by the president, it would leave the country sicker – from both diseases and rising health costs.

Fortunately, President Obama and Senate Democratic leaders understand that prevention can both save lives and save money.  Senate President Harry Reid and Senator Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and the father of the fund, are not likely to bring the repeal bill to the Senate floor for a vote. Also yesterday, the White House issued a statement  indicating that the President would likely veto any attempt to eliminate the Fund.  The “statement of administrative policy” said repeal “could worsen the nation’s health and increase system costs.” Indeed. The prevention funding is also key to expanding jobs and improving the health and productivity of America’s workers.

There continues to be some risk that money from the Fund will be used to pay for existing prevention efforts, rather than the new initiatives envisioned by Harkin and others. The Fund escaped a direct cut in the compromise plan to fund the federal government for the rest of this fiscal year, despite $38 billion taken from other programs. However, there remains the unfortunate possibility that the Obama administration may tap the Fund to replace some of the $730 million cut from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The bottom line: It remains important to educate all members of Congress about the long-term savings that result from reducing chronic diseases, and the important role the Prevention Fund plays in our nation’s long-term financial health. 

– Alice Dembner, Deputy Policy Director