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The nation is forgetting that drug and alcohol addiction "is a disease, not a crime," says former first lady Betty Ford.

"Characterizing our No. 1 public health problem as a `war on drugs' has allowed a return to the strictly punitive approach to dealing with people who are, in fact, sick," Ford told a House subcommittee Monday.She added that "the focus has been shifted to cocaine and crack to the extent of ignoring alcohol - the No. 1 drug of addiction in this country."

Ford urged Congress to increase public spending on substance abuse treatment and to stop insurance companies from restricting coverage of treatment programs through "managed care" strategies.

Under these programs, the industry relies on reviewers to manage the care of an insured patient by determining what will be covered and what won't, she said.

At the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., the 80-bed substance abuse hospital she founded in 1982, business has declined so much that the center operates below capacity and its waiting lists, once as long as 100 people, are nearly gone, she said.

"We are often told to discharge our patients before they are ready," Ford said. "This we steadfastly refuse to do."