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Beyond the Obamacare debate -- why does health care cost so much?

ObamaCare has been upheld.  But whether you are horrified, elated, or indifferent, one fact remains. The cost of health care just keeps on rising.  In fact, medical care now represents nearly 20% of total US GDP.  

Health care spending is so far out of control that not only individuals and families, but the entire economy is buckling under the strain.  General Motors spends so much money for its employees’ health care that Warren Buffet has called the corporation “a health and benefits company with an auto company attached.”  Each year, General Motors, like Ford and other U.S. automakers, pays more than $1,500 in health care costs for every car they make.  Japan’s Honda pays only $150.

The chairman and CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, says that his company spends more money on insurance for its employees than it spends on coffee.

It hasn’t always been like this.  We now spend more than $2.5 trillion annually on medical care.  But as recently as 1950, Americans spent only about $8.4 billion ($70 billion in today’s dollars).  The increase has been mind-boggling.  After adjusting for inflation, we now spend as much on health care every ten days as we did in the entire year of 1950.

But Aren’t We Healthier Than Ever?

Perhaps skyrocketing spending could be justified if the result was greatly improved health for the nation’s citizens.  But the truth is that our health has actually been declining in recent decades.  According to a 2005 Johns Hopkins University analysis, “On most health indicators, the US relative performance declined since 1960; on none did it improve.”

Despite spending far more per capita on health care than any other nation, the U.S. now ranks a dismally low 37th among nations in infant mortality rates, and 38th in life expectancy.  In 2010, the World Health Organization assessed the overall health outcomes of nations.  It placed 36 other countries ahead of the United States.  We are fast becoming the fattest and sickest industrialized country in world history.

What Should We Do?

This would be tragic in any case, but it is especially so because we know exactly how to bring down the costs of health care while dramatically improving our health. 

Studies have shown that 50 to 70 percent of the nation’s health care costs are preventable, and the single most effective step most people can take to improve their health is to eat a healthier diet.  

If we were to stop overeating, to stop eating unhealthy foods, and to instead eat more foods with higher nutrient densities and cancer protective properties, we would have a more affordable, sustainable and effective health care system.  We’d be less dependent on insurance companies and doctors, and more dependent on our own health-giving choices.

The typical American diet is producing devastating rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity.  It’s making us sick, and it’s bankrupting our families, our companies, and our government.  If you were to design a diet to promote heart disease, cancer and diabetes, you’d be hard pressed to do better than what many of us in the US eat today.

Benjamin Franklin spoke of becoming “healthy, wealthy and wise.”  We are doing the exact opposite.  

Ocean Robbins is founder of YES!, and serves as CEO and co-host of the 32,000 member Food Revolution Network.

John Robbins is author of "No Happy Cows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Food Revolution," and co-host of "The Food Revolution Network."  Find out more about his work at johnrobbins.info.