05/19/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Environmentalists Should Support Health Care Reform -- Here's Why.

On March 9, Friends of the Earth staff participated in a march for health care reform. We surrounded the Ritz Carlton hotel in Washington, DC to confront health insurance industry executives, who were inside holding their annual meeting to discuss insurance rate increases and devise last-ditch strategies to oppose health care reform.

It was important for us to express solidarity with the heath reform movement. Some ralliers saw our banner and asked, "Why is there an environmental group at a health care reform rally?" But the links between protecting the environment and improving our nation's health are more than clear; environmental issues are health issues.

Take, for example, the problem the U.S. faces with asthma.

Diagnoses of asthma have risen precipitously in previously healthy adults and children over the past few years. It's no coincidence that low-income, medically underserved, and African-American and Latino populations face the highest asthma risks. Scientists have linked the increased prevalence of this chronic disease to air pollution -- from smog, tailpipe exhaust, smoke from coal or oil plants, or other particulates. These sources of pollution occur in higher quantities in underserved communities and communities of color.

Meaningful health care reform will emphasize preventative care -- which could help people who suffer from asthma -- and will expand access to Medicaid. It will increase access to healthcare while lowering costs, and it will bar the insurance industry from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions or rescission. It will reduce the deficit and create jobs.

Too often, the people who are affected most by pollution, contamination, and loopholes in energy regulations are those who can least afford it. When the system allows pollution to continue unchecked, it metastasizes into a healthcare problem. The higher asthma rates and other afflictions related to poor air quality and smog that underserved populations experience is not just a health issue, it's an issue of environmental justice.

Social and environmental justice shape Friends of the Earth's advocacy. We fight to protect the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate polluting chemicals because no one should have to suffer from a respiratory disease because he lives a few blocks from a highway overpass or have her tooth enamel rot away because the water running from her faucet is tainted by runoff from a mountaintop removal site. We want not just clean energy, but clean energy that's generated in a way that creates stable, well-paying jobs. We want to reform trade agreements not only to strengthen environmental safeguards, but to ensure that workers benefit from them, not just multi-national corporations.

Friends of the Earth works primarily on environmental issues. Other progressive groups have their own causes -- economic justice, campaign finance reform, fair trade, LGBT equality, racial justice or labor rights. But progressives are united by the conviction that government should advance the goals of social equality and justice, and promote policies that are for the common good.

But principles are not all that the progressive community has in common. We also share common adversaries: powerful corporations and their armies of lobbyists who think Washington should exist for their benefit only. Time and time again they insist that market-based solutions are the answer. But if the last thirty years of market fundamentalism and deregulation have taught us anything, markets left to their own devices won't solve problems. Without government oversight and guidance from the public, free markets concentrate wealth and power among the elites who run large corporations. A market's focus is not on the long term or what's best for society; it is on the bottom line, this quarter's profit margins, the annual report to shareholders.

Balance sheets don't account for what's truly at stake. For each day the EPA is sidelined from regulating pollutants, untold numbers of people are put at risk for chronic health problems. Every time climate and energy legislation is co-written by corporate polluters and industry lobbyists, we are brought a little closer to the tipping points for catastrophic climate change. Health care reform advocates understand the type of purgatory we're in - at the rally in Washington, we heard from a former teacher whose insurance denied him a $3,000 procedure. He's been blind ever since. Every day meaningful health care reform is delayed, more gut-wrenching stories unfold -- rape victims, cancer patients, and others have their claims rejected based on demographics, personal history, or a typo in their paperwork.

We must understand that as long as progressives self-segregate or let elites drive wedges between our causes, none of us have enough power to force progressive change. But when we combine efforts, we can succeed. Environmental protection and health care reform are just one example of the need for progressives to work together and support our respective causes. Many of us intuit this without working to make it happen. In the end, the question isn't really "Why is there an environmental group at a health care reform rally?" The question is "Why weren't there more?"