Health Reform, Pound for Pound

Jill Garvey • Aug 18, 2009

One in three Americans are overweight. 12 million are obese. That is ironically close to the number of undocumented immigrants living in the United States. So why are protesters packing heat outside Obama’s town hall meetings and spreading conspiracy theories about a secret Mexican plan to reclaim the Southwest instead of making a stink about fat? Interesting that the protesters are mostly white, but not mostly skinny. Could it be that outspoken critics of health reform aren’t so worried about the economy, but actually race?

After all, those 12 million obese Americans put quite a strain on the health care system (the CDC reports that 9.1% of medical costs are obesity related). I should say the factors that make it difficult for them to stay healthy, such as access to healthy food, basic evolutionary hard-wiring, increasingly fatty processed foods, and corporate re-portioning schemes, are putting a strain on the system. Almost all of which relate to poverty.

So if undocumented immigrants and over-sized Americans are roughly the same number, and just for the sake of argument, will add a similar fiscal burden to a public option, why are immigrants the scapegoats? Those who are behind the grand strategy to derail health reform know that blaming the overweight will get them little traction. They play on the racism and fears of a population that is easy to mobilize in light of demographic changes that are irrevocably changing the face and color of America.

Those who are talking about obesity and health reform are generally medical professionals and researchers - those who know the numbers and ramifications of America’s weight problem. But that doesn’t mean the overweight should be excluded or blamed either. The ironies don’t end at numbers, overweight individuals, like immigrants, are often punished more than once for their respective circumstances. A recent NYT article points out,

“…it turns out that the obese already do pay something resembling their fair share of medical costs, albeit in an indirect way. Overweight workers are paid less than similarly qualified, thinner colleagues, according to research by Jay Bhattacharya and M. Kate Bundorf of Stanford. The cause isn’t entirely clear. But the size of the wage difference is roughly similar to the size of the difference in their medical costs.”

Likewise immigrants are often punished twice through both detention and deportation for fairly minor civil crimes relating to their status.

Conversely, corporations benefit on both ends - from the crappy food they sell on one end, to the private insurance we must buy in order to pay for the health problems caused by their crappy food. Or from the money they reap by employing low-wage, powerless immigrants in the food industry, to the billions they profit on from private prison systems to house detained immigrants. It’s enough to make one wonder why town hall protesters are more afraid of big government than big business. Since they are so fond of conspiracy theories, here’s a good one: big corporations are funding the radical right which is seizing on health reform to divide Americans along color and class lines - the anti-immigrant movement? It’s gobbling up the table scraps.

I’m all for providing a health care option to the weight-challenged and immigrants and, well, pretty much whoever needs it, even if it costs me more tax dollars. Why? Because I know that others are already paying for it - whether it be through pay discrimination, unhealthy working conditions, expensive medical treatment - those who most need it are already paying for it.

Individuals with better health care have a better quality of life. And a national population with a better quality of life means healthier, more prosperous communities. The fact that prospering communities help the economy? That ain’t so bad either.

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