Would you rather be healthy or have affordable education? That’s the false choice House Republicans are trying to force us to consider by pitting higher education against health. Last Friday House Republicans joined others in supporting the Interest Rate Reduction Act, which will prevent interest rate hikes on subsidized Stafford Loans for college from doubling on July 1.

The House passed HB 4626 with a vote of 215 – 195. Here’s the rub – House Republicans proposed financing this bill by defunding the Prevention and Public Health Fund (Prevention Fund)—a direct attack on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which authorized the fund. Senate and House Democrats agree that hiking interest rates on student loans is unacceptable, but have proposed a better way to finance the effort. They would close a tax loophole on certain corporations with incomes over $250,000.

The vote to pass HB 4626 did not come without a number of statements in support of upholding the Prevention Fund. Several Senate Democrats spoke out against defunding the Prevention Fund, and they were accompanied by President Obama who released a veto threat statement defending the fund. The President’s statement is a clear sign that he will not stand by and allow Congress to continue to chip away at funding to improve the nation’s health.

As we reported here, the most recent threat was when Congress decided to cut $5 billion from the Prevention Fund to help ward off scheduled cuts in Medicare physician pay. House Republicans have painted it as a “slush fund” as part of their strategy to dismantle the ACA. They claim their motivation is to address the deficit or cut spending. The irony is that full investment in the Prevention Fund would help to reduce long-term spending by preventing illness and promoting health.

So far, the Prevention Fund’s biggest investments are in two areas: increasing the size of the health care and public health workforce and implementing community-based health care interventions such as programs that aim to reduce obesity and tobacco use by addressing environmental factors. Washington Post reporter Sarah Kliff highlights state examples of these investments here. These investments are critical in light of the recent projection that we will be short 30,000 primary care physicians by 2015 in addition to staggering rates of preventable health conditions such as obesity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 33 percent of adults and 17 percent of children and adolescents (2-19 years old) are obese in the U.S. With rates such as these we cannot afford NOT to invest in health care workforce development and prevention.

The bill has now moved on for a vote in the Senate, where Democrats hold the majority. The Senate is proposing a different version that would finance the bill by closing tax loopholes. While reducing student loan interest rates is important, financing should not be taken from the Prevention Fund to meet this goal. We need to vigilantly protect the Prevention and Public Health Fund because it will help improve the health of all and restrain the growth of health costs in the long run.

— Dara Taylor, Regional Manager, State Consumer Health Advocacy Program, & Aurelia De La Rosa Aceves, 2012 National Urban Fellow