The moment these new rules take effect, health insurance companies will promptly discover they have a powerful interest in reducing rates of obesity and chronic diseases linked to diet. A patient with Type 2 diabetes incurs additional health care costs of more than $6,600 a year; over a lifetime, that can come to more than $400,000. Insurers will quickly figure out that every case of Type 2 diabetes they can prevent adds $400,000 to their bottom line. Suddenly, every can of soda or Happy Meal or chicken nugget on a school lunch menu will look like a threat to future profits.High fructose corn syrup treated like nicotine: it could happen.
When health insurers can no longer evade much of the cost of treating the collateral damage of the American diet, the movement to reform the food system — everything from farm policy to food marketing and school lunches — will acquire a powerful and wealthy ally, something it hasn’t really ever had before.
AGRIBUSINESS dominates the agriculture committees of Congress, and has swatted away most efforts at reform. But what happens when the health insurance industry realizes that our system of farm subsidies makes junk food cheap, and fresh produce dear, and thus contributes to obesity and Type 2 diabetes? It will promptly get involved in the fight over the farm bill — which is to say, the industry will begin buying seats on those agriculture committees and demanding that the next bill be written with the interests of the public health more firmly in mind.
In the same way much of the health insurance industry threw its weight behind the campaign against smoking, we can expect it to support, and perhaps even help pay for, public education efforts like New York City’s bold new ad campaign against drinking soda.
I don’t claim to be any kind of an expert on the US healthcare debate. Far from it. But what I do know is that in its totality, healthcare spending in the US is one of the most inefficient uses of money anywhere in the world. Despite the fact that well over half this spending is private, it fails to obey the first principles of efficient market theory. US healthcare makes even the notorious inefficiences of state spending in the UK look tolerable by comparison.Monsanto poisons us, and health insurance companies “cure” us, well, until we actually need to use their insurance for a serious disease.
America spends vastly more per head of population and as a percentage of GDP on healthcare than any other nation in the world (see accompanying bar chart), yet this fails to result in notably better life expectancy or quality of life for the US as a whole than other advanced nations that spend far less. Nor is this lack of value for money accounted for by the averaging down effect caused by the sizeable, uninsured minority that enjoys only sub-standard healthcare. American medicine, knowing that in the end it is the insurer that picks up the tab, has a tendency to apply the most extraordinary array of safety first, mainly unnecessary but hugely costly, tests and procedures to almost any condition. This enriches the medical profession and its support industries but is steadily bankrupting the nation and its corporations.