Eating Up Health Care

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One of the biggest recent developments in health-care reform is that Senator Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, announced revisions to his still-fresh outline for what a bill should look like. After widespread criticism that the subsidies offered in his original proposal wouldn’t be enough to make health insurance affordable for the middle class, Baucus greatly increased the amount of money budgeted for subsidies.

But the past couple of weeks have also seen greater discussion of an often-overlooked factor in health-care costs: what we eat. In an op-ed piece in The New York Times, Michael Pollan, a journalist and frequent critic of the food industry, notes that having to cover all Americans could give the insurance industry a greater incentive to encourage healthy habits. But in the meantime, overweight and obesity play a large role in our health-care costs — accounting for about one-tenth of them, according to a study Pollan cites. Another study he cites concludes that much of the difference in health-care spending between the United States and Europe can be explained by chronic diseases, including Type 2 diabetes, that are linked to obesity. And as we covered in a recent blog entry, an overwhelming number of people with Type 2 diabetes exceed dietary recommendations for calories from fat, saturated fat, and sodium in their diet.

Taken together, these stories lead to a logical question: Should the government introduce widespread health-care subsidies without addressing a major factor in the rise of costs? The government already subsidizes health care, of course, through Medicare, Medicaid, and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). Yet as a matter of principle, many Americans seem to believe that the government — which has a unique ability to influence dietary habits — should not try to control what they eat. Many do, however, accept a government role in reducing smoking through both taxation and public smoking bans — which, a recent study concluded, reduce heart attacks by about a third in areas in which they are implemented.

What do you think — is there an important difference between governmental efforts to reduce smoking and those intended to improve eating habits? Should the government introduce health-motivated regulations on the food industry, or subsidies for healthy food, along with its potential health-care subsidies? Regardless of the role of government, should health insurance plans be allowed to discriminate based on eating habits, as many currently do based on smoking? Is it fair to charge the same insurance premiums to people who follow healthy diets and those who do not? If it were possible, would you allow your diet to be tracked in exchange for a potentially lower insurance premium? Leave a comment below!

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