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The Physicians Committee



A Titanic Health Care Plan

By Neal Barnard, M.D.
This opinion piece was published on Oct. 5, 2009, on HuffingtonPost.com.

The luxury cruise ship was outfitted with a gymnasium, a squash court, a Turkish bath, and an on-board swimming pool, justifying the ticket price of $4,350 for first class passage. What it did not have was a hull capable of withstanding an iceberg. And on April 14, 1912, the Titanic went down.

The health care reforms proposed by the administration and in Congress all aim to provide basic health care for the uninsured, an essential goal. But unhealthy federal policies have turned health care into a luxury, with no means of fending off the icebergs that lie dead ahead. Consider this:

  • Even while our government is struggling to find ways to cover the costs of diabetes drugs and supplies—which typically cost between $3,000 and $5,000 for just one person with diabetes each year—it also pays out massive subsidies to the sugar industry. Junk food is made more affordable, and diabetes risk skyrockets.
  • Even as we seek to cover the cost of cholesterol-lowering drugs—one Lipitor pill costs about $5—our government also subsidies the production of high-cholesterol meat and cheese products.
  • As we gear up to help uninsured families get coverage for their children, government contracts ensure that school lunches are loaded with high-fat fare. More than 80 percent of schools serve too much high-fat food to comply with the federal government's own nutrition guidelines.

We pay to create health problems, and we pay again to treat them.

In 1909, when the construction of the Titanic began, the average American consumed about 150 pounds of meat per year. Today, that figure is over 200 pounds. A year's cheese consumption amounted to less than 4 pounds for the average person in 1909, but has reached nearly 33 pounds per person today.

We're wealthier than we were in 1909, and, collectively, we can afford a few luxuries. If our government wants to support these products with a billion dollars here and a billion there, we don't object. But then the real costs become clear. According to a recent report published by the American Diabetes Association, a person who eats meat or cheese daily is much more likely to be overweight, compared with a person who skips them altogether. And a meat-eater has double the risk of developing diabetes, compared to a person who avoids meat, and is more likely to develop cholesterol problems, heart disease, and hypertension, too.

So while we might be able to afford to buy unhealthful foods and to feed them to our families, the costs of the diseases that result are keeping members of Congress up at night and threaten to topple our economy. By 2017, about 20 cents of every dollar spent in the U.S. economy will be spent on health care, according to a recent Rand Corp. analysis.

While health care coverage should be viewed as a basic necessity, it has become a way of compensating for our diet excesses. It is a luxury of titanic proportions. Unless we reform not only health care, but also our health practices, we may find ourselves on a rapidly sinking ship.

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




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