Pause with me for a moment and create an image in your mind of the quintessential healthy person. What do you see?
I picture someone who is slim and agile. They probably bike or walk to work and engage in daily exercise. They cook for themselves, use fresh vegetables and few processed foods. They find satisfaction in their career and home life, mange stress well and devote time to meaningful hobbies and recreation. They have stable relationships with family and friends and have a spiritual life that brings depth and purpose to all that they do. And they don’t take any medication.
The Affordable Care Act, despite its merits, was doomed because it failed to acknowledge that health, and more specifically affordable health, has little to do with access to a physician.
By prioritizing access to medical doctors, our nation has insisted on perpetuating a disease-centric model. Perhaps this was intentional, after all, it is far more lucrative for any involved in the business of healthcare to treat long-term consequences of preventable chronic illnesses, rather than to actually prevent them.
If the incoming administration wants to try a new approach to both cut costs and improve the health of an average American, there are plenty of helpful and cost saving places to begin.
Our government can restrict the types of foods which can be purchased on government assistance, limiting them to fresh, high nutrient dense foods, which would allow us to stop spending millions of taxpayer dollars on chips, soda, and other nutritionally void items.
We can restrict advertising these same high-calorie low nutrition foods to children.
We can offer incentives for the development of public transportation systems which allow for shorter or less stressful commutes and require more folks to walk as part of their travel to work. We can create new and enforce existing bike lanes, require that every road has a sidewalk, and encourage urban areas to develop and maintain hike and bike trails.
We can promote workplace wellness programs which offer incentives to employees for spending part of their day exercising, meditating and learning about nutrition, or offer discounts on gym memberships.
We can teach gardening and cooking in every school, continue to improve the quality of school lunches, and restrict the sale of candy and soda on school grounds. We can institute these same policies in all public institutions.
We can provide tax breaks for organic farms and offer subsidized insurance for their crops. We can encourage cities to change zoning policies to allow for urban farming. We can bring mobile farmer’s markets to communities that are not within walking distance of a grocery store.
We can pay a true living wage focusing on the needs of marginalized groups like farm workers and day laborers. We can insist on adequate vacation, maternity leave and on-site child care. We can restrict shift work and night schedules or allow for more time off for those who work overnight.
We can implement a tax on high sugar foods and sodas that provide no nutritional value and are strongly correlated with chronic disease.
If all this sounds impossible, it shouldn’t. It was not long ago that rates of diabetes, obesity and a myriad of other chronic illnesses were almost non-existent. Even today there are many communities in the U.S. and around the world where most people enjoy good health. A true Affordable Care Act is not only a good idea, it is necessary and we are at just the time and place in history to make it a reality.
Erica G. Jarrett is a family physician who blogs at Liturgy of Life.
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