WHO CARES: Chronic Illness in America
WHO CARES: Chronic Illness in America

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What is Chronic Illness?

A chronic illness is a condition that lasts a year or longer, limits activity, and may require ongoing care. More than 125 million Americans have at least one chronic condition, such as diabetes, cancer, glaucoma, and heart disease. Nearly half as many have more than one chronic condition.

People with different chronic conditions face common problems, including high medical costs that are often not covered by insurance, leading to enormous bills that can mean bankruptcy for some families. Complicating the financial issues confronted by family caregivers is the difficulty in keeping a job or even working at all. For those living and coping with chronic illness, the challenges belie easy answers:

  • How do I pay for expensive prescription drugs that help manage my illness?
  • How do I pay for ongoing, long-term care when my health plan is geared toward acute illness and hospitalization?
  • How do I prove my value at work when I have to keep taking time off?
  • How can I keep my independence and avoid being a constant burden to my family?
  • And how in the world do I keep a positive attitude when chronic illness or pain is my constant companion?
Chronic care patients also face a complex health care system that can be difficult to navigate. Both private insurance plans and government programs deal more easily with acute medical problems than long-term ones. That plus a variety of constraints - time, money, organizational patterns - discourage physicians, social agencies, and others from coordinating their efforts on behalf of the patient.

Meanwhile, thanks to advances in medicine and healthier lifestyles, people are living longer and more productively with serious, debilitating diseases that in the past might have been fatal or confined them to a hospital bed. But our society has not addressed the economic, social and public policy consequences of these medical advances. Increasingly, what's needed from the American health care system is the steady but unspectacular care that helps people with chronic illness stay out of the hospital and live independent, productive lives.

That need shows no sign of abating: By the year 2020, the number of people living with chronic conditions is expected to rise to 157 million. Direct medical costs associated with these conditions are expected to double to more than $1 trillion -- 80 percent of the nation's health care spending -- while a quarter of the American population is expected to be living with multiple chronic conditions.

How familiar are you with chronic illnesses? Review a directory of diseases.

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