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COMMENTARY: My big, fat American health care problem

By   /   June 27, 2012  /   No Comments

By M.D. Kittle Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON – A good friend of mine recently had a heart attack.

A week before the big grabber, on a business trip in Europe, he went on a “pig knuckle” binge the likes of which haven’t been seen since the fall of Berlin. I had no idea that (a) pigs had knuckles and (b) human beings ate them.

A few days after doctors cleaned up his clogs, he called me on his way back from Chicago. Said he had just finished off two burgers and a hot dog. I'm no doctor, but I was fairly certain his meal wasn’t on the post-heart attack diet.

He told me he was taking his medicine.

My morbidly obese friend is a poster child for perhaps the most daunting problem facing the broken American health care system: Americans.

And they’re costing the U.S. economy hundreds of billions of dollars.

No matter how the U.S Supreme Court decides today in its much-anticipated ruling on the constitutional validity of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, (Obamacare, for conservatives keeping score at home), the U.S. health system and health care consumers are going to have to come to terms with a big, fat problem.

Taxpayers have spent a lot of money on government programs and PR campaigns begging Americans to put down the cigs and the fried cheese curds. At the end of the day, the real savings in the American health care system will have to come from people who seemingly cannot save themselves.

In a nation where two-thirds of adult Americans and one-third of American youths are overweight, all that extra weight is adding up.

The Society of Actuaries estimates America’s fat problem costs the U.S. economy $300 billion annually – including $127 billion in increased medical care, $72 billion in lost productivity from total disability, and another $49 billion in lost worker productivity because of increased death rates.

In 2006, per capita spending for Medicare climbed 36 percent, and shot up 47 percent for Medicaid, according to a study by Health Affairs.

The fat impact is hitting every facet of the economy. A Recent Reuters piece itemizes the problem:

“U.S. hospitals are ripping out wall-mounted toilets and replacing them with floor models to better support obese patients. The Federal Transit Administration wants buses to be tested for the impact of heavier riders on steering and braking. Cars are burning nearly a billion gallons of gasoline more a year than if passengers weighed what they did in 1960.”

Obamacare includes the Prevention and Public Health Fund, aimed at attacking the obesity epidemic and funded through about $13 billion of taxpayer money.

Since the health care act’s passage in 2010, Wisconsin has taken in more than $18.3 million in Prevention Fund grants for everything from tobacco cessation programs to fitness initiatives.

No one has been more vocal about the obesity epidemic than First Lady Michelle Obama, whose “Let’s Move!" campaign boasts the ambitious goal of wiping out obesity in a generation.

She’s had her critics, mostly conservatives who see Ms. Obama’s efforts as a government overreach.

“This isn’t about government telling people what to do,” the First Lady told ABC’s Good Morning America last month. "What we know we need to do is give parents, community, families the tools and information they need to make choices that are right for them and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.… 'Let’s Move!' is a way of giving people the tools and information and it really requires everybody to step up."

But the federally funded initiatives come from a conflicted U.S government that spent nearly $17 billion on agricultural subsidies between 1995 and 2010 – the vast majority of those supports going to corn and soybean additives used in processed food.

Much of the corn subsidies are for sweetners and starches such as corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup, the main ingredients in junk food, according to U.S. PIRG’s report, "Apples to Twinkies." A fraction of U.S. subsidies cover fruits and vegetables.

The Badger State is in the same banana split boat, pumping in millions of dollars to promote Wisconsin cheese, fried cheese curds, brats, while chipping in for campaigns attacking obesity and inactivity.

While there seems to be a schism here, the industries that make some of the most fattening foods in Wisconsin provide some of the best jobs in the state and add abundantly to its economy.

Eating the occasional cheese curd or Cousins Subs Big Daddy – shaming the Big Mac and the Whopper at an astounding 1,470 calories – isn’t going to cause irreparable harm to anyone’s health. When it’s every other meal? Now you’re talking obesity crisis.

But why should taxpayers – fat, thin, healthy, teetering on the brink of diabetic coma – have to pick up the tab on anti-obesity campaigns?

Memo to food consumers: If it's fried, loaded with mayo or secret sauce, drowning in butter or loaded with sugar, it’s probably going to make you fat and compromise your health.

Do we need the First Lady or New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to tell us that?

Listen, I’m not throwing stones at glass houses here. I’m a glass house. I’ve been known to eat chicken wings they way Aaron Sorkin used to inhale coke.

Fixing the high-cost health care system is going to require a return to personal responsibility.

Physicians say without partnerships between patients and health care providers, the system will continue to prove costly and efficient.

Want to help save the U.S. economy? Put down the cheese fries (or pig knuckles) and pick up a pear and some barbells.