The True Weight of Healthcare Costs

Besides the voluminous amount of references to Ronald Reagan, the only topic that unites the GOP more is their abhorrence for First Lady Michelle Obama's nutrition program "Let's Move" and her vegetable garden. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney recently derided the White House for making Americans eat "organic cake," while Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann cited anti-obesity efforts as the first step towards "a nanny state." However, the "fiscally conservative" Republican Party fails to realize that efforts to fight obesity not only lead to a healthier society, but to stronger national and state budgets.

There is no group that articulates the dangers of reigning in deficit and specifically healthcare spending like the Grand Old Party. Despite ignoring these very same concerns when the Bush Administration passed Medicare Part D, Republicans have voiced their outright opposition to Obamacare as "fiscal insanity." Yet, if the GOP were truly serious on combating healthcare costs, they would be leading the charge in the anti-obesity campaign.

In the debate over lowering healthcare prices and premiums, no single item could lower costs more than improving the American diet. By 2018, an obese patient will pay an average of $8,315 in medical bills a year, while a fit patient will pay an average of $5,855 over the same period. This $2,440 annual difference in expenses can hardly be considered pocket change. With the United Health Foundation's projection of a 43% obesity rate in the next decade, the United States will soon be allotting $344 billion in obesity-related medical expenses. This amount has already doubled what it was a decade ago.

Chairman of the Department of Health Policy and Management at Emory University, Kenneth Thrope contends, "Obesity is going to be a leading driver in rising health-care costs." Great increases in obesity-related cases of diabetes, hypertension, gallstones, arthritis, and heart disease have proven to be symbolic for this health and financial epidemic. As Reed Tuckson of the United Health Foundation surmises, "There is a tsunami of chronic preventable disease about to be unleashed into our medical-care system which is increasingly unaffordable."

As the federal deficit continues to increase with the American waistline, so do state budgets. The average state spends $2.27 billion annually in obesity-related expenses from skyrocketing Medicare and Medicaid costs. One can only expect these costs to rapidly increase in the near future. By the end of the decade, Colorado will be the only state with an obesity rate below 30%. States such as Oklahoma, Mississippi, Maryland, Kentucky, Ohio, and South Dakota could boast a rate higher than 50%. Cities across the Union are also suffering a similar challenge with obesity. America's ten largest cities on average suffer $50 million in direct costs from obesity-related diseases per 100,000 residents.

Unfortunately, the "weight" of these costs is being unevenly distributed to those on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. In Utah, 25% of the population earning less than $25,000 are obese. While of those making over $75,000, only 10% are found to be overweight. Consequently, those who are least capable of affording the increase in medical expenses are the most likely to be paying for them. After examining these expenses on national, state, and city level medical costs, Republicans should be standing in line to help build the vegetable garden with Michelle Obama.

In identifying solutions to this human and financial problem, one cannot help but ironically be reminded of the old Reagan adage, "the truth is, there are simple answers, they just are not easy ones." The American Heart Association correctly identifies the two core inhibitors of a healthy American society. The first is that of food consumption. Americans eat too much, while still unfortunately not acquiring enough nutrition. The American diet needs to decrease in the former and improve upon the latter. As a society that has increasingly gravitated towards eating out at usually more unhealthy restaurants than partaking in healthier home cooked meals, this problem has proven to be more systematic. However, there is no factor more important in correcting these habits than education. The United States must significantly introduce and improve upon its educational curriculum in teaching students and parents on the value of healthy choice.

As a society we do not necessarily make and promote easy healthy eating habits. One of the main problems related to this matter is the sheer cost of healthy foods. University of Washington Professor Dr. Adam Drewnowski illustrated this problem in identifying the buying power of a hypothetical dollar at a supermarket in terms of purchasing healthy and unhealthy foods. The study soon found that this hypothetical dollar could purchase over 1,000 calories of cookies or potato chips, but just 250 calories of carrots. Dr. Drewnowski also discerned that this same dollar amount could purchase 900 calories of soda, but just 170 calories of orange juice.

Finally, in an era where we continue to push our students to complete new and an ever-expanding amount of standardized tests, time must continue to be allocated for physical activity and fitness. In the long run, improving fitness scores will prove equally as important as improving math and science scores. With the average youth spending around 45 hours of week on some form of media entertainment, schools must concentrate ever more on physical fitness in the days of 21st century technology.

Whether we are discussing national security or deficit spending, today's political emphasis always seems to be placed on protecting our children and the next generation from these impending threats. However, obesity has and will continue to produce more deaths in this country than any perceived Osama Bin-Laden terrorist plot. Fiscally, obesity has and will continue to enlarge government and healthcare spending to an unimaginable height. In light of these circumstances, Republicans should change Mrs. Obama's slogan of "Let's Move" to "Let's Move Now."