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Today there is a growing awareness that business-as-usual corporate and lifestyle practices jeopardize the health of the planet and the ability of future generations to sustain a good quality of life. Awareness in turn has created a confusing array of sustainability-oriented decisions. The Greenophobe takes a skeptical, practical, informed look at a variety of sustainability topics. Explore a mix of common sense solutions and in-depth discussions that demystify how to live green and live well.

16 April 2012

Designing a Sustainable Cure for America's Runaway Healthcare Costs

U.S. healthcare spending -- in a league of its own.  Image source.

This chart highlights a scary fact.  U.S. healthcare costs are out of control.  If the $7,000 per year cost represented a household's direct annual spending, it would rival food and energy outlays combined.  

With the Supreme Court likely to strike down the individual mandate component of the Obama administration's healthcare reform plan this June, we may soon be back to the drawing board grappling for non-legislative solutions to America's healthcare cost crisis.  The overall reform plan may or may not survive.  An effective long-term solution to runaway healthcare costs could come from a seemingly unlikely place.  Rethinking environmental sustainability through the lens of human health could reduce healthcare costs swiftly and permanently while addressing the decline in comprehensive employer-sponsored health coverage.  By implementing clever programs at home and at work, we just may be able to lower insurance premiums, mitigate environmental harm and achieve a better overall quality of life.  When the bill is $1 trillion, a few percent here and there means billions of dollars in net savings.
The impacts of environmental sustainability on health care costs can be substantial if we address connections between health and sustainability at both a systemwide and personal level. 
One approach would be to delve into the connection between health care costs and what we eat by exposing the dirty secrets of the American corn monoculture and its role in subsidizing cheap unhealthy foods that lead to obesity.  For a non-food approach, we can connect the dots between transportation and health.  The way we plan our cities, buildings and residential neighborhoods contributes to mass lethargy with an immeasurably large societal price tag.  We know these connections exist.  

Precipitating action and change requires innovative ways of incentivizing positive behavior while circumventing stagnant legislation and powerful lobbies.  Easy, right?  

At face value environmental sustainability might seem altogether unrelated to the main drivers of America's high costs of care. Treating the planet better can't reduce the cost of malpractice insurance or make medical school more accessible and affordable.  What we pay physicians in the U.S. tops the list of factors explaining the huge gap between the cost of care in the U.S. compared with other wealthy countries.  Leveraging environmental sustainability to reduce healthcare costs requires us to proactively tackle the root causes of overall poor health in America.   We are used to thinking about health in reactionary terms -- like the monumental costs of providing care when someone is sick or providing government handouts to support an aging population in retirement.  In focusing on how expensive care has become, we overlook proactive opportunities with game-changing potential.  The proactive perspective says we have a chance to live better through the retirement years and to prevent the onset of many prevalent health issues in the first place.  After all, prevention is generally much more cost efficient than treatment.  This holds true for most major sustainability issues from greenhouse gas emissions to toxic waste cleanup.   

The healthcare problem exemplifies the quintessential sustainability dilemma -- endlessly borrowing resources from the future in order to address short-term needs.  The potential for meaningful change stems from the magnitude of the problem.  Individuals in America are paying more for healthcare than ever before. The collective costs are saddling the country with debt that will unfairly burden scores of future generations.  Will healthcare-related costs and debt service amount to 25% of future GDP? 50%? More? The decisions we make today on how to approach this problem will have grave consequences.  Attacking the drivers of health care costs at the environmental level, while not simple, may in the end be more effective and more feasible than trying to tinker with the entrenched layers of the health economy.  

The death of the employee health plan can be viewed more prodigiously as a mass market motivator and gateway to solutions rooted in sustainability

Traditional employee health plans that we once took for granted are now on the chopping block due to a trifecta of rising costs, corporate greed and unprecedented levels of global competition.  Once upon a time employee health plans were a presumed benefit of a decent job at a decent company.