Doctors, elected officials discuss economic impact of diabetes

ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.comJune 20, 2014 

Diabetes is a growing problem that's costing the United States billions of dollars and weighing heavily on businesses, the health care industry and government agencies, speakers at a diabetes symposium said Friday.

The event, organized by the Greater Columbus Georgia Chamber of Commerce's healthcare committee, was held at the City Services Center. It attracted about 50 people from various aspects of the community. Those who addressed the group included local and national experts representing hospitals, the pharmaceutical industry, insurance companies, the state Legislature and city government.

They explained how diabetes affects everything from economic development to government expenses.

"This is a unique day in Columbus because I think it's the first time, that I'm aware of, that we've had a conference to look at how our approach to chronic disease is evolving with the health-care system," said Dr. Steven Leichter, who moderated the symposium.

He is the senior physician at the local Center for Diabetes and Metabolism, the largest diabetes center in west Georgia and the third largest in the state.

Mayor Teresa Tomlinson told the group that 11 percent of city employees suffer from diabetes related illnesses. She said the disease contributes significantly to the $27 million that the city spends on health care for its 2,800 employees and their families. Many of the people who have the disease don't have a primary care physician and are relying on emergency rooms for treatment.

Though there's been progress with the city's new wellness center and other initiatives -- reducing costs by about $4.5 million in the first year -- Tomlinson said there's much work yet to be done. She said the health of local citizens affects the entire community and must become a priority.

"Healthy cities is absolutely a concept that is connected to economic prosperity," she said. "It's an indicator of the education level

of the city. It's an indicator of the economic development competitiveness of the city.

"We all hear when the lists for the most obese, or most unhealthy cities come out and every mayor on that list cringes because that means those looking to relocate their plants or relocate their businesses have just lowered that city on a short list," she added. "People are looking for cities with a higher quality of life. They're looking for cities with more active lifestyles."

The event was held in conjunction with Diabetic Peripheral Neuropathy Day, which was designated by the state in collaboration with the Pfizer company as June 20. Diabetic peripheral neuropathy is a multi-faceted condition that involves different nerve groups in the body and can cause a wide variety of complications and dysfunctions, Leichter said. They range from ulceration and deformity of the feet to problems with the stomach and intestinal tract.

Dr. Troy Espiritu, a podiatrist at Columbus Foot and Ankle, said most people don't know they have the condition because they lose feeling in their feet. By the time they come to the doctor, they have a gaping infected wound and, in some cases, the foot has to be amputated. He said diabetics have a 15 percent to 25 percent lifetime risk of developing the condition and a foot is being amputated every 20 seconds somewhere in the world.

Morgan Kendrick, president of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia, said prevention is the key to overcoming such problems. He said the United States is moving from a pay-for-volume to a pay-for-value system under the Affordable Care Act and better management of chronic illnesses is now a priority.

Kendrick said Georgia ranks 38 out of 50 states when it comes to health and wellness. Of the state's 10 million people, about 1 million have diabetes, and about 350,000 are unaware.

He said about 75 percent of health-care costs are due to chronic illnesses, and 70 percent are preventable.

"We as business leaders in the community have to set the example by spreading the information," he said.

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