On Jan. 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy gave the shortest inaugural address in our nation’s history. The soaring speech, noted for its brevity and clarity, is also remembered for its plethora of memorable phrases, many recited in schools and lecture halls still today.
Perhaps the most oft-quoted phrase is, “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
Unpacking this powerful sentence can take a lifetime, but it can notably be applied to American health care. For far too long, the American people have approached this critical issue with the opposite mentality.
Our Own Worst Enemy
Americans keep asking the government to fix health care for them: to lower costs, increase access, and improve quality. They demand that Washington force insurance companies to reduce premiums. And some keep expecting their countrymen to underwrite their health care costs.
Is this really the best solution? We can point fingers at capitalist insurance companies, at a lecherous pharmaceutical industry — and as former President Obama did on numerous occasions, greedy doctors. We can blame the Republicans for not offering up plans when they had the chance, and blame Democrats for passing a stifling law that forces people to buy something and takes away health care choices.
Some argue health care costs are high because of insurance and pharmaceutical companies. The fact is that many of us invite illness on ourselves — then expect others to bear the costs.
But in the end, the first place to look, the first person most Americans should blame, is the one staring back at them in the mirror.
We know that anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of our health care costs can be directly attributed to chronic illnesses that are largely preventable and due to poor lifestyle choices. Leading the list are heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and obesity. While some argue our health care costs are so high because of insurance and pharmaceutical companies or greedy doctors, the fact is that many of us invite illness on ourselves — then expect others to bear the resulting costs.
We are drowning in health care costs, not because of greedy doctors or high-tech medicine, but because many Americans haven’t taken it upon themselves to live healthier lives. Despite excellent educational opportunities and devoted health care professionals, all too many Americans are oblivious to the obvious: If you overeat, smoke, drink to excess, fail to exercise, and take part in high-risk activities, illness is sure to follow — and global costs rise.
Our politicians know this; if not, they should. But Democrats have designed their system to disregard the reality of poor patient health practices, while Republicans are either too reticent to be as direct as Kennedy, or simply unable to figure out how to make something happen.
Not a single politician or elected official has had the boldness of JFK to call upon the American people to take better care of themselves. Wouldn’t it be quite a sea change for those who inhabit the halls of Congress to look Americans straight in the eye and say: “We can do what we can to help Americans get health care at a reasonable cost — but Americans have to help us, too.”
Helping to change Americans’ habits should be part of any health care legislation that reaches the president’s desk.
Two Straightforward Suggestions
1.) Congress ought to propose ways to reduce regulations so that insurance companies can design policies that reflect lower costs when patients make healthy choices and higher costs for patients who don’t. If safe drivers get lower car insurance premiums and non-smokers get lower life insurance premiums — why can’t health care be the same?
2.) The president must make a prime-time speech in which he explains to voters that he and Congress can do only so much without patients playing their role, too. Tell them the truth. Treat them like grown-ups. Democrats will cry foul, of course, but the American people are sure to appreciate the straight talk. We elected Donald Trump, after all.
Congress and the president’s team already deserve praise for working to repeal Obamacare and replace it with something better — ideally, something more market-oriented. But we are kidding ourselves if we think their plan will do anything more than slow the ship from sinking. It’s time for Americans to stop asking what their government can do for their health care — and start asking what Americans can do. It is the only way to solve our health care problems in the long run.
Dr. Strom is a fellow at the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. Dr. Gianoli is the co-founder of the Ear and Balance Institute and a clinical associate professor at Tulane University.