I served in the United States Congress for 30 years. I’ve seen firsthand that nearly every American’s best health care is to avoid getting sick in the first place. While we can’t always elude common colds or the flu, decades of evidence have proven that a healthy lifestyle based on exercise, sleep and good choices offers the greatest hope for reducing the risk of life-threatening diseases. This “health first” approach is also the best public policy path for America because it cuts health care costs, hospital stays, expensive treatments and the corrosive personal and economic effects of an extended or chronic illness.
As it stands, our nation faces the most significant health and economic crisis we have seen in our 244 years of existence. The total confirmed cases of COVID-19 are almost 30 million, and while the economy seems to be coming back, unemployment is at 6.3 percent. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is the importance of proper nutrition as a cornerstone of a “health first” strategy. But unfortunately, most Americans — particularly lower-income Americans — are not receiving the care they so desperately need. According to available data, 95 percent of adults and 98 percent of teens have an inadequate vitamin D intake, and 91 percent of adults and 90 percent of teens do not get enough magnesium.
Improving nutrition across America is one of the most apparent low-cost, high-benefit public policies we should embrace. It’s why I support the resolution introduced by Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.), which recognizes the significant role vitamin D may play in the fight against COVID-19.
It’s also why Congress must consider legislation that modernizes the treatment of dietary supplements. Currently, neither SNAP nor WIC allows participants to purchase vitamin supplements through the program. Additionally, the Internal Revenue Service’s definition of “medical expenses” currently denies Americans reimbursement for nutritional and dietary supplements through their Health Savings Accounts, Flexible Spending Accounts and Health Reimbursement Arrangements.
According to a 2017 study on the risk of deficiency in children and adults in the United States, 31 percent of the population is at risk of at least one vitamin deficiency or anemia, including a significantly higher risk for women (37 percent), non-Hispanic Blacks (55 percent) and obese individuals (39 percent). Research shows that high-risk populations can benefit from taking dietary supplements, representing the potential for hundreds of millions of dollars – and in some cases billions of dollars – in savings.
As health care costs continue to rise, many Americans are turning to these innovative alternatives to meet their health care needs with maximum flexibility. We need to provide all Americans, especially our most vulnerable, with more choices regarding their health care. Expanding access to vitamin supplements through SNAP, WIC, HSAs and FSAs is the perfect bipartisan opportunity that recognizes the health benefits that nutritional supplements can and do provide our nation.
Edolphus Towns Jr. served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1983 to 2013.
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