updated 3/24/2009 6:52:40 PM ET 2009-03-24T22:52:40

West Virginia could save roughly $2.7 billion in public and private health care costs by 2018 if it focuses on combating the twin scourges of obesity and chronic illness, a national expert told lawmakers Tuesday.

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If the state does nothing, though, the same expert warned that total health spending in the coming decade could double from its present figure of $11.5 billion annually.

Emory University health policy professor Ken Thorpe met with lawmakers Tuesday to discuss his estimate.

Thorpe said the savings depend on bills aimed at developing a statewide health information technology initiative. He also said the state must devise a "medical home" model for health care in which a patient's care is overseen by a single doctor or clinic and create programs to address chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension.

Thorpe was hired by the state last year to help chart an overhaul of West Virginia's health care system. The recommendations of the committee overseen by Thorpe zeroed in on problems involving obesity and the illnesses that stem from it. Overall, Thorpe estimates that three quarters of the state's health care spending each year is linked to chronic disease.

"It's easy to do nothing," Thorpe said. "But we're at a point in this state where the cost of health care is so high, it's not going to be possible to continue doing nothing."

Thorpe pointed to similar initiatives in southeastern Pennsylvania, Vermont, Rhode Island and with North Carolina's Medicaid program. By focusing on preventive care, healthy lifestyles and managing chronic disease, he said, acute care in the form of emergency room visits and other attendant costs has been reduced.

Slideshow: Perspectives on health care "The reason why the opportunity for improvement is so high in West Virginia, unfortunately, is because the rate of chronic illness here is so high," he said.

West Virginia is regularly among the top two or three states with the highest rates of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, among other ailments.

A package of legislation based on the recommendations shepherded by Thorpe are at various stages in the Legislature.

One of the most contentious, a requirement that chain restaurants post calorie information where customers can easily see it, got a boost Tuesday when it was passed to the Senate floor by the Health and Human Resources Committee.

Wendel Turner, a lobbyist for the West Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association, which represents restaurants, argued the state should wait to see what the federal government decides on menu labeling before making its own regulations.

"To do this state by state is a very ineffective, inefficient way to achieve the goal here," he said.

Thorpe, though, argued that the components of the health care agenda add up to more than the sum of their parts.

"If you do it as part of a package, you have a much better chance of success," he said. "Any one of these initiatives by itself may not do the trick."

Committee chairman Sen. Roman Prezioso is optimistic that the entire package of bills will pass this year, although he said there's a chance that some bills may be merged to make it easier.

"It's the combination of all these parts that makes it effective," the Marion County Democrat said. "Some of these look like separate issues, but they add up to a big picture."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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