My latest column for The Villager:
Worried about the national debt? Fretting about our deficit? Want to see a cut in government spending? Hoping for lower taxes? If these issues are on your mind, one of the best things you can do to play your part is to start living healthy. Cut out the soda, avoid most heavily processed foods, walk thirty minutes a day, and save the country. Of all the spending in the United States at the federal level, it’s healthcare that is the true budget buster, accounting for nearly 25% of the budget.
It seems like every single day the news features another article about how to live healthier, and the benefits are not surprising to anyone who pays attention. Yet while people are living longer than ever before thanks to medical advances, most are not living healthier. Americans regularly put their health, both physical and fiscal, at risk by remaining sedentary, eating large amounts of processed foods, and relying on medications to treat conditions which could be improved through lifestyle choices. Nothing in the news has reversed these trends in the past three decades. However, perhaps a new angle regarding the pressure our weight and poor health are putting on the national pocketbook could redirect the discussion.
Dr. Ezekiel Immanuel, brother of former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Immanuel asserted in a column for the New York Times that “We Can Be Healthy and Rich.” Without doubt the greatest economic risk to the American budget is the unfettered growth in health care spending, predominantly via Medicare. Thus, if Americans simply consumed less health care and demand went down, the federal government could shave hundreds of billions of dollars off the federal budget. Instead, older and retired Americans, who are virtually uninsurable in the private market, are in need of increasingly costly health care. And, it affects those still working as well, for according to billionaire philanthropist Warren Buffett “medical costs are the tapeworm of American competitiveness.”
Medicare accounts for more than 15% of the federal budget, and hospitalizations are more than 40% of the cost of Medicare. Alas, it doesn't have to be that way. The federal budget is straining under the burden of health care costs precisely because Americans are entering their later years in need of increasingly extensive and expensive care. Once Baby Boomers started retiring, with Generation X following soon, it’s no surprise the Medicare budget was going to balloon. The problem is that so many health care problems are easily treatable with lifestyle, notably diet and exercise. Countless Americans are on blood pressure, insulin control, and cholesterol medications while making no changes to their lifestyle. These ailments are often predominantly lifestyle conditions, and much of the cost could be eliminated with healthy living.
Of course, the problem is not just an issue for government spending. The private health care and insurance system spreads costs across risk pools. Thus, one person's habits affect another person’s costs, and all consumers are intrinsically linked to each other whether they want to be or not. While many Americans consume little to no medical treatments, that doesn't prevent their premiums from rising annually because overall costs and payouts still go up, and they do so at a rate which far outpaces inflation. Granted, a broad range of illnesses and health care costs cannot be avoided. The problem is that so many of the payouts are for preventable conditions. Thus, the best way to save money via health care spending is to simply not need to spend money on health care. Or more importantly, spend the money on health not sickness, and on true health care, as opposed to sick care.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that health care is nothing short of a national security issue. Anyone who truly seeks to save money, both at a personal and federal level, should be doing everything possible to improve the overall health of the nation and decrease the need for and the consumption of health care, or more accurately “sick care.” Health care is, or at least should be, the steps we take in life to avoid needing medications, doctors, and hospitals. And that starts with increasing physical fitness while decreasing consumption of empty carbohydrates and poor diets of processed foods. Our health, and the health of the nation, depends on it.