Commentary

How About Viewing Health Care Not as a Right, But as Restitution?

By BILL BONVIE | May 31, 2017

After late-night comedian Jimmy Kimmel recently weighed in on the healthcare debate with a story about how medical intervention had saved the life of his newborn son, a questioner at a Stanford University forum asked Mike Mulvaney, the Trump administration’s budget director, if he agreed that any replacement for the Affordable Care Act should meet the “Jimmy Kimmel test” standard.

While Mulvaney conceded that “we have plenty of money to provide that safety net so that if you get cancer you don’t end up broke,” he went on to add, “That doesn’t mean we should take care of the person who sits at home, eats poorly and gets diabetes.”

Of course, the notion that ill health is something for which many, if not most, individuals have only themselves to blame and that the government therefore shouldn’t be responsible for their medical bills is simply another manifestation of far-right philosophy. The same is true for the idea that there is no such thing as an automatic “right” to health care that’s guaranteed to Americans in our Constitution.

As rabbinical candidate Eli Steinberg opined in The Federalist this past February when making that very argument, “No person is ‘entitled’ to anything from anyone else’s pocket.”

But, in fact, they very well might be, if the pocket in question is that of a party who is liable for damages to that particular person. And in the case of the collective group known as the American people, a claim can be reasonably made for such damages in the form of compensation for the cost of their health care – big time.

How so? Well, consider that a key part of the stated mission of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is “protecting the public health by assuring the safety, efficacy and security” of “our nation’s food supply.”

That, in essence, is a guarantee by our government that when we buy standard food items from seemingly reputable companies, we can be reasonably confident that they’re fit for human consumption.

In reality, however, that’s been anything but the case. While paying lip service to the idea that it’s protecting us from shoddy practices in the production and manufacturing of food, the FDA has actually acted as an enabler of agribusiness and the food processing industry to make their products more profitable in practically any way they see fit, no matter how potentially harmful to consumers.

The results have added up to a health disaster of untold proportions that has brought serious illness, premature death and economic ruin to countless Americans.

As an example, let’s look at those diabetics to whom Mulvaney was referring. Diabetes (mostly type 2, the “acquired” type) is a disease that today afflicts close to a tenth of all Americans, up dramatically from the less than 1 percent who were diagnosed with it nearly 50 years ago, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A growing number of those afflicted are children and teenagers, a group for whom type 2 was once a virtually unheard-of condition.

So, is the current diabetes epidemic, and the corresponding jump in the obesity rate, simply the result of today’s consumers and their kids carelessly abandoning whatever it was that previous generations did to stay relatively free of this now commonplace disease? Not really. Because while it may be true that the ill health afflicting these folks is indeed mostly due to the processed foods they’ve been eating, the way most such foods are now formulated is a far cry from how the great majority of the very same products were made back when diabetes was merely a blip on the medical map. 

And one radical change they’ve undergone is the nearly ubiquitous presence of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is often confused with sugar but is actually a cheap synthetic substitute introduced in the 1980s at a time when the price of actual sugar began affecting the size of food industry profits. 

In various studies conducted in recent years by major universities and health facilities, HFCS has been linked not only to the current obesity epidemic and the prevalence of type 2 diabetes (particularly in young people), but to conditions like non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, pancreatic cancer and a rise in childhood asthma cases. Yet the FDA permitted it to literally invade the food supply, taking up residence not only in so-called junk food and “sugary beverages” (which really aren’t), but in all kinds of commodities. This was done without bothering to first investigate its potential for harm, or even making the public aware that a dramatic alteration had occurred in most of the long-familiar items found on supermarket shelves.

HFCS is just one of a whole slew of additives that have long been given a green light by the FDA to permeate our diet, despite numerous findings from highly reputable institutions and authorities on their pernicious effects.     

Another such example is the agency’s own rationale for having very belatedly and somewhat grudgingly ordered a phase-out of partially hydrogenated oils from our food supply, scheduled to take effect a year from now. By its own estimate, these unnecessary sources of added trans fats, as opposed to natural ones, have been responsible for 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 related deaths every year they’ve been added to processed foods, mostly for the purpose of giving them a longer shelf life.

Not only has the FDA dragged its feet in finally implementing that pending prohibition, however, but in the meantime it allowed the food industry to misrepresent the trans fat content of many everyday products containing less than 0.5 grams per serving as having zero grams of trans fat on “nutrition fact” panels. Those supposedly negligible levels of trans fat can add up very quickly to artery-clogging amounts.

Nor did the FDA undertake this initiative on its own, but only after a lawsuit was filed against the agency and the Department of Health and Human Services by University of Illinois comparative biosciences professor Fred Kummerow, an author/activist and now a centenarian, after waiting four years for a response to a 2009 citizen’s petition he had submitted. In that filing, Kummerow, who had extensively researched the subject, claimed that the continued presence of these ingredients in the typical American diet had caused “as many as 100,000 excess deaths per year.”

The FDA’s dereliction of its duty to protect public health is also evident in its obliviousness to the hazards of supposedly “healthy” alternatives on which it’s bestowed its blessings. That failure resulted in margarine, a product laden with trans fat, becoming widely used as a substitute for butter, and the artificial sweetener aspartame being approved for use in so many “sugar-free” and zero-calorie products, despite fraud-plagued safety tests (as determined by the FDA’s own investigators) and evidence of alarmingly high rates of brain tumors in laboratory animals to whom it was fed.

Since being approved at the beginning of the 1980s by an FDA head who subsequently appeared to have been appointed for that very purpose (in deference to the head of the company that developed it, Reagan transition team member Donald Rumsfeld), aspartame has been the source of many thousands of adverse reaction complaints that have included severe headaches, dizziness, blackouts and vision problems. In fact, airline pilots were cautioned by aviation journals back in the early 1990s to avoid diet sodas.

Those are just a few examples of common food ingredients that have helped turn us into a nation of patients with all manner of maladies at younger and younger ages. It is a situation that would in all likelihood never have come about had the federal watchdogs in whom we placed our trust not consistently kowtowed to industry at the expense of the public they were charged with protecting. And that’s to say nothing of the toxic pesticides they have continued to allow to permeate what should be “healthy” commodities. 

In essence, our government must be held directly responsible for failing to live up to its promise to ensure that our nation’s food supply is safe and unadulterated. The government, it turns out, is responsible for our having become a largely sick society as a result. And the least it can do to make amends is to provide us with restitution in the form of health care that’s available and affordable to any and all who may have been adversely impacted by its negligence. This argument can be made even if you believe that, unlike the inhabitants of practically all other civilized nations, health care is not one of the “rights” that should be automatically guaranteed to Americans.

Bill Bonvie of Little Egg Harbor is a co-author of Badditives! The 13 Most Harmful Food Additives in Your Diet – and How to Avoid Them and author of the essay collection Repeat Offenders.

 

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