As Congress Ponders Reform, Health Centers Address Root Causes of Illness

The "Farmacy" at the Petaluma Health Center sells produce at deep discounts to low-income families as part of its mission to encourage better health. Photo Credit: Petaluma Health Center

Suzanne Potter
California News Service

PETALUMA, Calif. – As Congress struggles to make the health care system more cost-effective, local Community Health Centers are already doing their part, with a focus on prevention instead of treatment of illness.

Studies show that close to half of people’s health status is directly related to behavior – diet, exercise, smoking and stress management – and only ten percent is tied to health care. Yet, according to Dr. Fasih Hameed with the Petaluma Health Center, 90 percent of health care money is spent on treating people’s symptoms rather than trying to address the causes and prevent them.

“You could never address it just through traditional healthcare, so we had to expand our ability to do so by innovating all these programs,” Hameed said.

The Petaluma Health Center handles about 150,000 medical visits a year, but it also refers patients to programs like “Petaluma Loves Active Youth,” which offers medical advice, exercise classes and healthy cooking demonstrations. The health center runs a large community garden, where anyone can pick the produce, and hosts a weekly organic farmer’s market that accepts food stamps and charges on a sliding scale.

An estimated 14 percent of Americans, or 48 million, are food insecure – meaning they lack access to nutritious, affordable food. In California, Hameed notes, many low-income families are squeezed by rising rents, leaving little money for groceries. And often, the least expensive, most convenient food options are the least healthy.

“Fattening foods and sugary foods and unhealthy foods are cheap and so, kids are actually malnourished but obese,” he said. “It’s the paradox of the food insecure.”

A study in Petaluma a few years ago of a program that distributed free bags of produce showed that families who got them ate better and reduced their body mass index after just 12 weeks.

The National Association of Community Health Centers has launched a project with the Medtronic Foundation to document progress on this issue. That report will be released later this year.