Surgeon General Regina Benjamin speaks about prevention at the Health Affairs “Confronting the Growing Diabetes Crisis” briefing. She want to put the “joy” back into health. (Kit Fox/Medill)

WASHINGTON — With a new study showing high dropout rates for high school students with diabetes, the nation’s top doctor said Tuesday that prevention must be the new direction of health care in the United States.

“The role of the government is to give people the tools and places they need to be healthy,” Surgeon General Regina Benjamin said at a briefing on the new Health Affairs journal diabetes issue.  “It’s kind of common sense that if you prevent a heart attack it will cost less.”

Nearly 26 million Americans have diabetes and that number is expected to grow dramatically in the next decade.  According to Health Affairs, one-third of Medicare spending goes towards diabetes.

“We have an economic ticking time bomb,” said Deneen Vojta, senior vice president of major health care provider UnitedHealth and one of the authors in the journal.  “At the end of the day, we need a cultural shift in this country.”

Benjamin plans to start that shift as the leader of the National Prevention Council, created by the health care reform law. The council consists of leaders from 17 federal agencies working to promote health in all aspects of life.

“We want to change the way we think about health in this country,” Benjamin said in an interview.  “We need to put the joy back in health.”

Benjamin emphasized the importance of play as a strong motivator to get people, especially young people, to be more active.

The study released Monday in the Health Affairs journal found high school students with diabetes have a significantly higher dropout rate and earn about $160,000 less during their lifetimes than those without the disease.

To engage youth, Benjamin has issued an “app challenge” to get developers to create applications that make healthy decisions more fun.

“I think the young people are going to stimulate [health] and bring us old people along for the ride,” she said.

Healthy lifestyles changes are proven to decrease the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes, according to another study released by Health Affairs.

The study estimated a “community-based lifestyle program” could prevent or delay 885,000 cases of diabetes with $5.7 billion in health care savings within 25 years.

“Imagine a drug that reduced diabetes by 15 percent,” Vojta said. “The (Food and Drug Administration) would rush to approve it. Well, a lifestyle change does this.”

Panelists at the briefing commended the Obama administration for new policies focused on prevention, but said the nation needs more.

“What’s very frustrating about all of this is we know how to keep diabetes under control,” said Susan Dentzer, the editor-in-chief of Health Affairs. “Just because we know what to do doesn’t mean we do it.”

Congress is reluctant to fund programs to combat specific diseases and focuses too much on general care, according to Michael Mawby, a government affairs officer of the health care company Novo Nordisk.