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Barry Sears

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Thinking Outside the Box on Health Care Reform

Posted: 06/26/09 01:26 PM ET

The newest battleground for government intervention is health care. The numbers being thrown around are in the trillions, with the hope that there will be a long-term benefit for the economy. But with all the rhetoric about health care reform, no one seems to have asked the question, "Why are Americans so sick in the first place?" The ultimate answer is what we are eating and the existing government policies that promote the problem.

Currently there are very few things that America can make cheaper than anyone in the world. One exception is food but not just any type of food. The food production that we are the best at is growing and then adding value by additional refining to certain crops. The three crops that yield the greatest financial returns after refining of raw agricultural material are corn, wheat and soybeans. In terms of the production of refined carbohydrates and refined vegetable oils, America has no equal. In fact, our entire agribusiness sector is based on these three crops.

It starts with industrial-sized farms that supply raw materials to the massive food processing plants that produce the value-added ingredients to make the ingredients for processed food production. Finally, there is the delivery of the finished processed food products to restaurants and supermarkets. It's a trillion-dollar business that is all ultimately built upon cheap refined carbohydrates and vegetable oils. This is why less than 10 percent of the disposable income of Americans goes to food purchases. This is a far lower proportion than any other country in the world. Human nature being what it is, when you have access to more cheap food, you eat more of it.

The unfortunate aspect of this dependence of the agribusiness sector on cheap, refined carbohydrates and vegetable oils is that when they are combined in the diet, the result is increased dietary-induced inflammation. This is not the type of inflammation that causes pain, but represents increased silent inflammation at the cellular level that is below the perception of pain. This is the underlying cause of a wide range of chronic diseases ranging from obesity to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and neurological disorders. It's this type of inflammation that is driving the development of chronic disease in America. It all is financed by agricultural subsidies totaling nearly $20 billion per year that ultimately paid through taxpayer dollars. Unless you reduce this type in dietary-induced inflammation in Americans, it will be impossible to have any health care savings no matter how much money is thrown at health care reform.

So here is my first suggestion for paying for the estimated $1 trillion for health care reform over the next ten years. Why not simply divert the annual subsidies now given for corn, wheat, and soy to pay down the projected health-reform deficit. Not only does that reduce the primary driving force of dietary-induced inflammation that is the cause for our poor state of health, but it also contributes $200 billion to health care reform over 10 years without any increase in taxes.

My second suggestion is to make sure that any newly patented prescription drug that wishes to get FDA approval must be shown to be significantly better than the best existing generic drug for the specified condition it intends to treat. Rather than having drug prices continually escalate with more newly patented "me-too" drugs, overall drug costs will begin to plummet especially as more and more prescription drugs become generic, thus continually raising the bar for true innovation from the drug industry. The biggest beneficiary would be Medicare drug expenses since seniors now expect unlimited access using today's most expensive drugs, although they paid into the Medicare system using highly discounted dollars. Remember that there was essentially no drug industry 80 years ago, but somehow we survived. (Of course, there were also no government subsidies for corn, wheat, and soy). Frankly, most of the advances in longevity in the past century have not come from drugs but improvements in public health, such as safer drinking water.

Finally, you have to reverse the "fee-for-service" mentality that permeates the current medical establishment. Essentially you can't teach old dogs new tricks so you have to start with the next generation of physicians. To do this, you simply offer to pay for all medical-school expenses for any incoming medical student, and also pay them a living wage as well as provide a 40-hour work week (instead of the standard 100-hour work week at low wages) during their residency period. In return, they get a guaranteed lifetime salary equal to 80 percent that of a member of Congress (as well as the same health care benefits which are best and the cheapest in the country) with none of the hassles of dealing with declining reimbursement from insurance companies (private or public). In essence, they become public employees (like soldiers, police, firefighters, etc.) who serve the entire community. At any time, these public physicians can have the option to become fee-for-service doctors by simply paying back all their medical school and residency costs plus interest.

These are three very simple strategies to not only help pay for health care reform, but also reduce the primary economic drivers that make American health care the most expensive in the world. Unfortunately, all are highly unlikely to be implemented because of strong lobbies that support the status quo. In times that call for great political and financial courage, we are unlikely to see it demonstrated in Washington. What we will find is that politicians will take the easy way out--borrowing against the future. This means that the U.S. dollar will be continually debased, and we will continue the same unsustainable practices that have led our country to such a sorry state of health care for everyone. With the weakening of the dollar, any potential benefit of the promised health care reform to improve our economy will simply become an empty dream.

Barry Sears, Ph.D., creator of the Zone Diet and author of the #1 New York Times best-seller, The Zone. His newest book, Toxic Fat, describes the development of the epidemic of silent inflammation and its impact on worldwide health.