Eco Etiquette: What Would Health Care Repeal Mean For The Environment?

Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

What's the Green stance on the president's health care law? Has anyone looked into the effect that repeal would have on the environment?


Healthy people, healthy world: It's a phrase we throw around a lot in the environmental realm. Maybe that's why the Green Party supports single-payer universal health care and preventive care for all Americans. But what, exactly, is the connection between health care and the environment? It's a question worth examining in light of this week's harsh US Supreme Court examination of the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate.

The court's final decision isn't expected until June, of course, but with an apparent split among the judges now a very real possibility -- and the reality that if the individual mandate portion of the law is struck down, the whole law could fall along with it -- a lot of people are talking about what would happen if "Obamacare" goes kaput.

We know that 50 million uninsured Americans would be left high and dry; the economy would likely suffer as well. In addition to health care costs continuing to spiral out of control, Harvard economics professor David Cutler has written [PDF link] that repeal would slow job growth by 250,000 to 400,000 jobs a year.

But health care repeal could have broader implications not only for the health of the economy and the health of the American people, but for the health of our planet, as well. Why? Well, an insured population is one that has regular access to preventive care. And preventive care is, where both cost and resources are concerned, the least wasteful way of providing effective medical care. (Compare: nutrition counseling for a pre-diabetic versus a diabetic foot amputation and prosthetic.)

Take that away, however, and our for-profit, quick-fix, waste-driven health care system will only get worse. A look:

Pill pollution. Pharmaceuticals -- including antibiotics, antidepressants, and sex hormones -- have already found their way into the drinking water of 41 million Americans. With people denied regular care for chronic conditions like pain and depression (or medication-free alternatives like talk therapy), we'll continue to be a pill-popping nation. Think logic dictates that people with health care coverage -- including prescription drug coverage -- will consume more prescription drugs? Consider: Over 70 percent of people who abuse prescription medications obtain them not from a doctor, but from friends or family.

Overpopulation. Speaking of pills, or rather one in particular... regardless of whether or not you believe that a health care plan should include contraception coverage, the fact remains that access to affordable birth control is our best defense in a world threatened by overpopulation. (Read: Better Access to Contraception Could Slow Global Warming.) Anyone can buy a condom at a drugstore, of course, but other more effective methods that require a doctor's prescription and/or supervision -- like the Pill and the IUD -- may be out of reach for many Americans if the president's plan ceases to be.

Hospital waste. US hospitals produce an astounding 6,600 tons of waste every day, and much of it isn't recyclable (think: needles, syringes, IV tubing, soiled paper gowns). If Americans aren't able to see a doctor before illnesses become complicated to treat, this figure will only increase: We'll continue to see more otherwise preventable surgeries, more hospitalizations, and a lot more toxic medical waste polluting our land and water as a result. This gets back to my original point about preventive care.

Pesticide-laden commodity crops. You don't have to have seen Food, Inc. to know that our food system needs fixing: US agricultural policies are fueling our genetically modified, atrazine-doused, high fructose corn syrup-laden junk food habits -- along with our national epidemic of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. We're not currently forced to look at this connection to our out-of-control health care costs, but I guarantee we'll start hearing a lot more about it, once insurance companies are tasked with keeping costs in check as they provide coverage for all.

With repeal? Let's just keep spraying the pesticides and gobbling up the junk food! Who needs a cost-effective way to prevent disease (like gasp! a healthy diet) when insurance companies can keep raking in record profits?