Neal Barnard: Another Way to Reduce Costs -- Get Healthier

By Neal Barnard
Friday, September 18, 2009; 1:49 PM

In his recent health-care speech to a joint session of Congress, President Obama didn't even mention that the entire debate about health care is driven by the fact that Americans need so much care. Collectively, we are sicker than we have ever been, and part of the blame falls on the government's own shoulders.

Take diabetes, for example. The number of Americans with the disease has soared to 23.6 million in recent years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC figures that a separate 57 million have pre-diabetes, meaning that, barring changes in their diet and lifestyle, they, too, will end up with the diagnosis. Looking ahead, things get even uglier: The CDC forecasts that one in three children born since the year 2000 will develop diabetes at some point in his or her life. Adding up the costs of doctors, hospitals, and medical supplies, our national bill for diabetes was $174 billion in 2007. That's one disease for just one year.

High blood pressure affects 74 million Americans. Coronary heart disease affects 17 million. As patients line up at pharmacy counters, doctors offices, and hospital registration desks, the cash registers ring up the costs of these diseases -- well into the hundreds of billions.

What neither the president nor Congress wants to admit is that, even while our government is struggling to cover the cost of illness, it is also spending an enormous amount of money causing the epidemics we are plagued with. Between 2003 and 2005, the federal government spent more than $20 billion subsidizing corn, soybean, and sorghum, mainly for animal feed, and an extra $1.3 billion for dairy subsidies. Among other things, the Department of Agriculture buys up hundreds of millions of dollars of meat and dairy products, aiming to boost farm income, and dumps them in school lunches and elsewhere.

These purchases push our cholesterol levels up and our waistlines out. The natural result is that the government then needs to find ways to pay for diabetes drugs and supplies, cardiac surgery, and antihypertensive medications related to our unhealthful diets. Sadly, every administration in recent decades, including the current one, has been caught up in a system that not only tolerates ill health, but encourages it.

Neal Barnard is a nutrition researcher and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

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