I live with a disease that has no known cause and no cure. It can leave me in excruciating pain. Slowly, it is eroding the neurological connection to my brain and spinal cord, which can eventually lead to my losing my vision, my strength, my balance, my speech and even my memory.
Since being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999, I've developed a greater understanding of how important it is for patients to have access to good doctors, treatment and prescription drugs.
As a television host with good insurance, I'm fortunate that I can afford to be treated by some of the world's best physicians and also afford the specialized medicines needed to battle this debilitating disease.
Unfortunately, many Americans do not have this opportunity.
Our nation is facing a health care crisis. The number of Americans without health care insurance continues to rise. Obesity and chronic disease are plaguing communities - even our children.
As a native of Baltimore, I know that these problems are all too familiar in my home state - especially for the nearly half a million Marylanders who lack health care insurance.
We need straight talk from politicians - and especially our presidential candidates - about ways we can solve the many problems strewn across today's health care landscape.
While there are no silver bullet solutions, there are many public- and private-sector programs to ease the financial burdens of patients struggling to make ends meet.
When it comes to prescription drugs, hundreds of federal, state and private patient assistance programs are available to help uninsured and underinsured people obtain needed medicines at no charge or at significant discounts.
But prescription drugs are only part of the picture. One study after another hammers home the blunt truth that people who lack regular access to health care are more likely to suffer chronic health conditions. Given the general aging of our population coupled with our rising rates of childhood obesity, it's a sure bet that chronic diseases will cause our nation ever-increasing troubles as the 21st century unfolds.
While many critics blame prescription drug prices for soaring medical bills, chronic diseases such as heart disease, asthma, mental illness, cancer and diabetes now account for more than 75 cents of each health care dollar. Together, they place an enormous burden on patients, families, employers, communities and our overall health care system.
One key to correcting our present course is finding ways to motivate businesses, universities, civic clubs and other groups with a stake in good health to support the reforms that seem likely to correct the worst flaws in the nation's medical system.
Some cities are taking on the challenge and making a difference with creative programs. Fresno, Calif., and Jackson, Miss., for example, provide health and wellness information to residents through the national Healthy Town initiative. Asheville, N.C., offers special services to city employees with chronic health problems.
Of course, individual citizens must also begin accepting responsibility for changing their bad health habits. As a former Marine, I know the value of physical fitness and have worked diligently to maintain a healthful lifestyle.
In the end, it will require the combined efforts of individuals, government, nonprofits and the private sector to take on the huge health care challenges that lie ahead.
Talk-show host Montel Williams is the national spokesman for the public-private Partnership for Prescription Assistance. His e-mail is www.montelshow.com/tell.