* Group: Americans need healthier foods, recreation access
* Officials must think beyond health system, costs -panel
* Transportation, city planning, safety key, group says
By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON, April 2 (Reuters) - The government should broaden its efforts to overhaul the U.S. healthcare system to include steps that provide better access to good food and recreation, a panel of experts said on Thursday.
Rather than an intense focus on just how much it costs to treat the sick, more work must be done in schools and cities to give people better access to nutritious food and places to exercise, the panelists concluded in a report commissioned by the nonprofit Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
“It’s clear that as a nation we have tried to spend our way to better health through medical care, and it hasn’t succeeded,” said Jim Marks, head of the foundation’s health group, which funds projects and research aimed at improving healthcare.
Congress and the White House are gearing up to revamp healthcare delivery and insurance coverage. President Barack Obama has made providing health insurance to the 46 million Americans without it a cornerstone of his plan, seeking a 10-year, $634 billion reserve fund as a “down payment” for the effort.
Congress is planning related legislation and has taken steps to insure some children and boost electronic medical records.
So far, much of the debate has centered around controlling skyrocketing healthcare costs. A growing number of Americans suffer from heart disease, diabetes, obesity and other expensive, chronic conditions.
About 16 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product goes to healthcare, government statistics have shown. Yet, the United States ranks among the lowest industrialized nations in terms of infant mortality and life expectancy, the report said.
“While getting coverage to all Americans is a very important goal ... it turns out that programs that may have the biggest impact on our health are programs that we don’t think about as being healthcare programs at all,” said Dr. Mark McClellan, who co-chaired the group’s year-long effort to prepare the report.
Specifically, the panel said schools must stop offering students junk food and provide at least one hour of physical activity each day. School funding should be tied to such efforts, it added.
Panelists said greater attention should be paid to the impact of housing developments, public transportation, neighborhood safety and other planning issues that can help people have more active lifestyles.
More areas -- especially lower-income ones -- need parks and clean, safe streets as well as full-service grocery stores that offer fruits and vegetables, they said.
Their report also called for greater efforts to curb smoking and more funding for early childhood development programs that can teach children healthy behaviors earlier in life.
“Our nation’s policies that are not normally thought of as health policies really do have a health impact,” said McClellan, the former head of two U.S. health agencies and current director of the Brookings Institute’s Engelberg Center for Health Care Reform.
The group said it aims to meet with lawmakers and push to have the report’s findings incorporated into new policies. Obama has already proposed expanding some early childhood education programs in his 2010 budget. (Editing by Mohammad Zargham)