You may have noticed that a while back, a Democratic president and a Democratic-led Congress tried to fix health care, and while more people do have health insurance, health care costs are still rising. You also may have noticed that a Republican president and a Republican-led Congress now promise to fix the fix. It won’t work either.
The truth is that no health care reform can create an affordable system in an unhealthy nation.
Modern American life, in fact, is profoundly unhealthy. Americans eat too much and eat the wrong things: too much sugar, fast “food” and processed conglomerations with unpronounceable ingredients; too few fruits, vegetables and healthy protein sources. We stay up too late bombarding our brains with flashing electronic lights rather than getting the sleep we need. We drive everywhere, take elevators up one flight of stairs, and spend most of our days sitting, which research has shown is very bad for us. We are addicted to all kinds of drugs – caffeine, opiates, alcohol. Then we try to fix all of this, quickly, with short bursts of exercise that often injure us, and with diets we cannot maintain, and with pills that have harmful side effects.
But it’s more than just about what we put into and take out of our bodies. We are disconnected from nature and from the natural rhythms of life. We are replacing healthy personal interactions with shallow distant relationships and unproductive disagreements on social media. We are fueled by a sense of outrage triggered by 24-hour media sources that might as well be plugged into our brains. We seek “more” rather than “enough,” filling our lives with stress and worry, flitting like gnats from responsibility to responsibility, and climbing ladders that are leaning against the wrong buildings.
And then after all of that, we think our members of Congress and a president are going to create an affordable, workable health care system, just because they happen to be members of a certain party?
The costs of our lifestyle were illustrated in a recent report by the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement. As reported by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, state and school employees and spouses were given the opportunity to save $75 on their insurance premiums if they completed a survey. More than 69,000 did.
It found that health insurance plans spent $4,302 in 2015 on employees and their spouses who were obese – 43 percent of the respondents – compared to $3,270 on employees who were not. The costs of obesity, in fact, were significantly higher than for those who smoked tobacco, who averaged $3,703. The plans spent an average of $6,043 for employees who exercised fewer than 20 minutes per week, compared to $3,776 for employees who said they exercised moderately at least 20 minutes just once a week. Those who exercised moderately three times a week or vigorously once a week cost their health plans $3,345.
No study tells the whole story, of course. Some people don’t exercise because they already have health problems, perhaps through no fault of their own.
Still, these are large differences in a sample size of more than 69,000 people. The difference in costs between those who exercise very little and those who exercise not that much was almost $2,700 a year. That one habit almost cut health care costs in half.
The United States has by far the most expensive health care system among the industrialized nations. According to the World Bank, the country spent $9,403 in 2014 per person on health care. Health care costs accounted for more than 17 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, compared to an average of 12.3 percent among all high-income nations – a number that we skew upwards.
As the study of 69,000 Arkansans makes clear, healthier lifestyle choices would make us a lot healthier as individuals and significantly reduce the nation’s health care costs, which is the key to increasing access to everyone. Think of what could be done with that extra money now spent on taxes, insurance, and the costs of preventable health problems.
You can’t overcome the actions of 300 million people with a legislative act. Regardless of what elected officials do, if we’re going to reform health care, we’re going to have to reform ourselves.