Bookmark and Share September 11, 2009 - Dave Mulder

An unexpected ally: insurance companies

A funny thing happened while I was working on an article Friday morning: I discovered that someone had already written it. What started out as a discussion about the health insurance industry quickly became unintentional plagiarism. Well, not plagiarism, just very similar to what another author had already written about the necessity of a food system overhaul as part of a complete health care solution. Michael Pollan’s article in Wednesday’s New York Times says everything I wanted to say, albeit a touch more eloquently.

At this point I could leave my readers with a link to Pollan’s article and be done with it. Why would I want to do that, however, when I spent so much time researching for my article in the first place? Let’s touch on the key points of Pollan’s work.

Western diseases, American food production,  and Medicare

Obesity, heart disease, and diabetes are also known as Western diseases because they are primarily present in the United States. The American industrial food production system, with subsidization from taxpayers, produces cheap processed food. In short, our food economy has made us fat and sick. Then we go see a doctor, who prescribes drugs and treatment that doesn’t cure us but instead treats a chronic illness. Because good nutrition is more expensive, America’s poor are stuck with the discriminating glut of Western diseases. Another taxpayer-funded program, Medicare, then subsidizes the treatment of these people. It’s an unfortunate cycle; the hidden cost of cheap food lies in social fees like Medicare (not to mention environmental destruction). Big business, profiting from the production of cheap processed food and the treatment of nutrition-related chronic illness, has no interest in changing the system.

Leveling the playing field

A new government-backed health care plan can change the market dynamics. Presently, insurance companies make their money by insuring healthy people and denying coverage to those who are unhealthy, or have the potential to be a serious drain on revenue in the future. When the new plan takes effect, these insurance companies will no longer be able to deny coverage like they have; they will be required to accept customers regardless of their background. Rather than avoid people at risk for chronic Western diseases, it will be in their interest to ensure the health of the entire population. And in that moment, the movement for a change in our food production system will gain a major ally.

We can only hope that insurance companies see this as the best road to their own profitability. If they do not, then it’s unlikely they will aggressively pursue policy changes that seek a re-connection between consumers, producers, and food. And it’s unlikely they will take agribusiness head-on in a large, political battle. Insurance companies are an ally that this movement needs to gain serious legislative traction in the next decade. While this country’s president can support a farmers’ market on the White House lawn, he probably can’t make the industrial food economy change its ways with the snap of a finger.

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