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WASHINGTON — The political divisions that characterize so much of Washington fell away this week, as representatives of business, public health organizations and government said they can work together to improve the health of Americans.

Participants at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Health Means Business summit agreed on several ways to boost health to prevent disease and save money, which showed reason for optimism, said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

"What you’re really doing is fostering the kind of alliances that bridge those barriers that prevented us from being the healthiest nation we could be," she said at the conference Wednesday.

There's also plenty of reason for concern, however. Young people today could become the first generation in decades to live sicker and die younger than their parents, Lavizzo-Mourey said. Mental health is a big contributor: About two-thirds of children are exposed to violence in a year, she added.

The companies the chamber foundation brought together are "fostering the kind of alliances that bridge those barriers that prevented us from being the healthiest nation we could be," she said.

It came at a particularly opportune time.

When it comes to the Affordable Care Act, “we don’t know whether it’s going to be repealed or repented,” Valerie Montgomery Rice, a physician and dean of the Morehouse School of Medicine, said to laughter Thursday. “We have to invest in our communities.”

Community health centers, she said, would be a great way to convince more patients to stay healthy, possibly using funding from multiple sources. 

“Most of us know that by the time you get to the doctor to get the cardiac catheter, it’s too late,” said Rice. “You’ve already decreased your chance for a successful outcome long term that could have been prevented.”

It’s important to take the healthy living message and “imprint it on these kids early before they get to high school,” said Will Compton, a Washington Redskins linebacker who became involved in the NFL’s Play 60 program while playing for the University of Nebraska. Play 60 is the National Football League's campaign to encourage kids to be active for 60 minutes a day to reverse childhood obesity.

Compton says he didn’t get truly serious about his health until he was a high school senior. These days, he said he listens to motivational speaker Tony Robbins and tries to live by Robbins' motto that if "you aren't living if you're not giving."

It pays for companies to care. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates businesses spend, on average, about $1,700 per employee, per year due to health problems.

"The American business community will not be competitive if we continue with the status quo and we don't invest in preventable health measures," said Elyse Cohen, executive director of the Health Means Business Campaign and former deputy director of Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign while she was first lady.

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Among the areas of focus:

• Healthy workers. Companies including American Express, J.P. Morgan and Aetna are among the companies investing in employees' health and reaping the benefits. Nancy Testa, AmEx's chief diversity officer, said the company is tracking productivity increases for its internal health and wellness campaign. "When we prioritize health, our performance increases," said Arianna Huffingon, founder of the wellness company Thrive Global and author of The Sleep Revolution. "We need to set boundaries." Thrive is working with J.P. Morgan on programs relating to sleep and meditation and Huffington said the company knows "the science is on our side."

• Healthy food.  "You have to enjoy your food," so Chobani's Robert Post said that's why the company offers recipes that make it easy for people to substitute its high-protein Greek yogurt into their favorite foods to make them healthier. Chobani's emphasis on culinary quality, he said, helps school children and adults practice better nutrition. He would know. Post, senior director of the Chobani Nutrition Center and regulatory affairs, developed the Agriculture Department's "My Plate" guidelines while at the agency's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. Post said the company's "nutrient intense" yogurt provides up to 20% of the daily value of protein which boosts health in the schools it works with. About half of Chobani's sugars come from natural sources including the fruit and milk. Even though people should be eating nuts, not sugar, Kind CEO Daniel Lubetzky says many of his competitors sell bars with about four times more sugar because it's so much cheaper.

• Healthy children. Sufficient amounts of calcium and iron in food reduces the effect that any lead exposure would have on children, said Daniel Huff, the director of environmental health for Minneapolis' health department. Getting kids to develop a taste for high-nutrition and lower-sugar foods while they are young is also critical to improving health in their later years, said Lubetzky. He announced a $25 million pledge to form a new food policy group run by health advocates and completely independent of his company. It will fund food research and investigative journalism to "offset self-serving industry agendas at the expense of public good."  News reports about the sugar industry's influence over food policy helped prompt his decision, he said.

• Healthy communities. With strained public health resources, partnerships with business are going to be a key way to fund community health, said Indiana health commissioner Jerome Adams, a physician who Vice President Pence appointed two years ago while he was the state’s governor. Adams regularly emphasizes that "health means jobs" but noted it can be "hard to get people to care about preventing heart disease decades in the future" until he shows them data linking improved health with increased wages and jobs.

Investing in community health makes sense "in this political environment and in any political environment," said Michel Nischan, founder of Wholesome Wave. His group won the Health Means Business' Partnership of the Year award Thursday for its Los Angeles program, funded by Target, that allows doctors at Eisner Pediatric & Family Medical Center to write prescriptions for free fruits and vegetables that patients can fill at Target and farmer’s markets.

Physician Francoise Adan of University Hospitals in Cleveland, led a group meditation — one of the many things she’d like to see embraced at companies in the U.S. She also has five easy tips that anyone can try to reduce stress in their own lives. Her native France enacted a law prohibiting employers from sending emails after hours. It’s something she knows is a long shot in the U.S., where she first started hearing about the benefits of employers taking the lead on wellness about ten years ago.

A decade later, she said, "we still have a lot of work to do."

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