American Heart Association President Steven Houser, Ph.D.

American Heart Association President Steven Houser, Ph.D., speaking at the White House.

Nearly 200 American Heart Association volunteer advocates recently trekked to Washington, D.C., for a conversation with senior White House officials on the state of cardiovascular health in America.

The event last Friday was part of the Obama administration’s “Making Health Care Better” series and included the release of a report about the administration’s progress to improve cardiovascular research, prevention, access to care and treatment.

AHA President Steven Houser, Ph.D., opened the event and talked about the success of the Affordable Care Act and how coverage gains have positively impacted the lives of people with heart disease and stroke. The administration’s “vision” for health care has helped more than 7 million Americans with cardiovascular disease and risk factors get health care coverage, Houser said.

But despite these improvements, there is still a long way to go in eradicating heart disease and stroke, said Tom Frieden, M.D., director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Frieden noted that if current trends continue, about 44 percent of Americans will have some form of cardiovascular disease by 2030, and total healthcare costs will rise to more than $2.5 billion a day.

Between panels, guests watched “History of Exercise,” a video from the AHA and Funny or Die starring Nick Offerman and first lady Michelle Obama, and took an activity break led by Lauren Darensbourg of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition.

AHA CEO Nancy Brown speaking at the White House.

AHA CEO Nancy Brown speaking at the White House.

More effort must focus on prevention, AHA CEO Nancy Brown said at the event. Fellow panelists agreed.

Debra Eschmeyer, director of the first lady’s Let’s Move campaign, said preventive efforts should begin in childhood by encouraging kids to eat healthy foods and develop active lifestyles. She praised the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act for guaranteeing children school meals with more whole grains and less sodium and sugar.

Matt Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said discussions about prevention may not be as emotionally enticing as a heart attack survivor story, but “the heart attack that never happens is what we’re really all about.”

Several AHA You’re the Cure advocates shared personal stories about overcoming heart disease and stroke.

Gracie Doran, a 17-year-old pediatric stroke survivor, spoke about being a teenager with a “limp and a crooked smile.” Doran’s stroke at age 10 left her paralyzed on the right side. The experience does not define her, she said, but it allows her to create awareness that “stroke can happen to anyone at any age.”

Doran applauded health care reform, calling it a “sigh of relief” for her parents, who were able to focus on getting Doran the care she needed.

Heart disease survivor and advocate Pkaye Washington talked about the genetics of heart health and her family history of cardiovascular disease. The Affordable Care Act changed her life because she could be transparent about her genetic predisposition for heart disease. Under the law, pre-existing conditions can no longer be used to deny someone health coverage.

Stroke survivor Chris McLachin joined Washington and Doran in urging Congress and the administration to prioritize healthcare research by adequately funding the National Institutes of Health.

The AHA launched a petition to encourage the next U.S. president to continue these efforts and join the fight against cardiovascular diseases.

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Photos by Richard Greenhouse