Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Healthcare reform - my $0.02

This is a public reply to John Mackeys' op-ed in WSJ (can be found at

Sir, some of your suggestions sound alright. However, your company is hardly the measuring stick for the whole country: every time I have gone to WholeFoods, the pace is relaxed, the employees are under no pressure or stress, they are all fit and thin and I am betting they don't kill themselves with overtime either. They also have access to healthy foods, I am betting at better prices than the rest of us. The root cause of obesity and general lack of health in America is not lack of exercise or a lifestyle choice (as you so over-simplistically make it sound), it is the following quartet of reasons:

1. Most Americans are slaves to their jobs. I need not look further than my wife - she is an educated veterinarian with a BSc in Biology. In her field/job it is common to work 12 hour days, leave the home at 7 am and come home at 7 or 8 pm. When she does get home, she is drained of any desire to work out, especially after not having the time to eat lunch! (You would think with all her degrees she would have a choice, what about the majority of America without a college degree?). Even though her official work hours are 8-5, she NEVER EVER gets home on time. She is also on-call at night, one week of the month. This is her third job with the same hours. Find one employee at Wholefoods that has these hours, please. However, most of America is doing this, juggling children and maybe working an extra job to be able to afford something like a vacation or basic medical care. So, do not tell me it is a lifestyle choice. The solution to this, in my opinion, is to legally prevent employers from making their employees stay at work after 5 pm. The employee should be able to stay IF THEY WANT TO and get paid for it too. But don't just offer me a choice of getting paid for the extra time or getting fired for not wanting to work the extra hours. Only then will it be a lifestyle choice.

2. The environment is polluted with all sorts of chemicals outside of our own individual control. Just because the coal company swears its products are safe and just because today's science says the paint in my bedroom is not toxic, does not mean it is true. We have been shown over and over that what science thought was harmless at a point t in time proved not to be true at point t+x in time. Nobody can measure the effects of our surroundings on our bodies and clearly that needs to be factored into the lifestyle. Most Americans cannot afford the wall-paint that you can, they also cannot afford to move far away from the county garbage disposal facility, the county water treatment plant or the local pig farm that seeps antibiotic and hormone infested manure into their soil or water. Most of us also have no control over the amount of pesticide and chemicals that go into our food chain simply because we do not produce our food. We also cannot control the acid-rain that goes into our garden or water supply or the amount of sewage that seeps into our water table.

3. The price of organic, healthy food is much higher than the conventionally grown food. You should know, you are making billions off of the backs of "health-conscious" Americans. I consider myself to be a middle-class professional who can afford the organic foods you sell but honestly, how many of us can, on an everyday basis, especially families of four or more? My bills at Wholefoods are almost twice what I pay at the local grocery chain and oftentimes I come home with less food! So you tell me, how am I to make that healthy choice if I can barely afford rent and gas? Add to that the cheapness and the overabundance of the processed junk out there and the choice for many is clear. Oh yeah, isn't the basic reason d'etre of Wholefoods the abundance of the cheap processed junk? If organically grown food was as cheap and accessible to everyone you really would not have much of a business model now, would you?

4. Urban planning: have you ever noticed how people in New York City, Boston, Chicago or Seattle just look slimmer? Well, they walk a lot! So do all the Europeans we so much cite for their health. You cannot expect to build a suburb 40 miles outside of town and basically create vehicle-bound invalids out of everyone living there, making them spend half their day in traffic, work overtime, only to expect them to find the time to exercise afterwards. Sorry, ain't gonna happen. Even if you are a stay-at-home Mom with three school-age children, the amount of driving you would have to do in one day to get them all to their schools and practices and all the other activities in INSANE. Fix that first, allow people to walk everywhere (work, school etc.) and you will instantly get an exercising nation.

You talk of the need to have transparency in medical treatment charges. That means you must have looked at a bill or two in this department. Assuming that you have, show me one industry where a pill of aspirin costs $10 in a hospital when I can buy a bottle of 50 in my grocery store for $4? My calculator says that is a hospital profit of 12500%. If that is not price gouging I don't know what is. But yet we all turn a blind eye to it and the insurance company pays the bill. You know why? Cause I as a consumer will pay it at the end. The winners in this "war" are always the insurance companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers. Hey, Aspirin is a 100-year old medication and it still sells for $4-5/bottle. You would think by now it would be $0.5/bottle.

Show me one industry that makes the profit margins that the pharmaceuticals do on the volume that that industry has. If your car manufacturers had those margins - your average Honda would probably cost $4 million a piece. Also do not forget that a lot of drug research happens to be funded by tax-payer money through University programs only to end up producing wild profits for the pharma companies for years to come. Don't you find that a bit perverted?

You speak of the market regulating itself to a correct solution and you also sound like you believe that the correct solution can be reached if the market is left to itself. Well, let me ask you this question: if the processed food is so bad for you and the organic food is so good for you - how come the market has not regulated itself to the desired position of all of us eating cheap organic food? I mean, the correct solution would be to have healthy and cheap food for everyone, right?

I also see you want to allow people to donate money to the less-fortunate uninsureds. Sir, I already pay taxes! That should count for something (I consider that my "donation" to society).

Finally, I ask you, why not lower your own profit margins at Wholefoods and help the nation eat organic and healthy? Make the lifestyle choice for the rest of us easier.

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