Live from AMGA: Huckabee on Healthcare

Elyas Bakhtiari, for HealthLeaders Media, March 5, 2009

It's easy to see how Mike Huckabee's personal health history has influenced his views about healthcare policy. The former Arkansas governor addressed AMGA attendees during a networking lunch on the conference's last day, and although he seemed comfortable reciting a wide range of health statistics from memory, the story of how he turned his health around after being diagnosed with Type II diabetes was the most compelling part of his speech.

When Huckabee's doctor told him in 2003 that he was entering the "last decade of his life" if he didn't improve his health, he took it to heart—he began exercising and eating healthier foods and was able to lose 110 pounds and eventually run four marathons.

And now Huckabee sees his former problem as one of America's biggest long-term threats. We're not facing a healthcare crisis, but a health crisis, he told AMGA attendees. He pointed to a growing obesity problem and rising rates of childhood diabetes. He chastised politicians for looking for four- or eight-year policy solutions when what is needed is a cultural shift in how Americans take individual responsibility for their own health, which he said could take a generation.

He cited cultural shifts in how Americans changed their views on littering, seatbelts, smoking, and drunk driving as evidence that finding solutions to the obesity epidemic is possible. And some of the programs he implemented as governor of Arkansas, such as paying for 100% of smoking cessation programs and rewarding employees who improve their health, provided examples of effective wellness incentives.

Some of what he advocated, such as the need for more prevention, fit in nicely with what most healthcare experts agree on. But parts of his speech almost contradicted earlier presentations, including the opening keynote—his conclusion that the United States has the best healthcare system in the world didn't jibe with IHI President Donald Berwick's data suggesting U.S. healthcare lags behind most industrialized nations but costs twice as much.

In fact, Huckabee barely mentioned some of the more detailed topics central the current healthcare reform discussion, such as how to cope with the number of uninsured, how to handle provider shortages, and whether or not the healthcare provisions in the economic stimulus package were worthwhile.

Huckabee is by no means a healthcare policy wonk and left many gaps in his handling of the system, but his vision for a healthier America is an important part of the equation that shouldn't be overlooked in reform efforts.

Many might disagree with his assertion that we're facing a health crisis rather than a healthcare crisis, however. For most physicians and hospital leaders, it's both.

Elyas Bakhtiari is a managing editor with HealthLeaders Media. He can be reached at
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