ROBERT GRABOYES: The unintended elitism of current health care policies

Robert Graboyes is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

The biggest problem with health care policy may be that those who design health care policy mostly design it for people who design health care policy.

We policy folk reside in a variety of institutions: medical facilities, corporations, universities, think tanks, legislative offices, regulatory agencies and advocacy groups. But we broadly share certain characteristics. We’re well educated. We possess deep knowledge of health-related matters. We’re analytical. Our thoughts and passion focus on health.

Our lives and careers follow similar patterns. We have white-collar jobs. We either pursue healthy lifestyles — exercise, diet, medical care — or at least feel guilty when we don’t. Our schedules theoretically leave us time to exercise or obtain healthy meals. Our friends, co-workers and families share many of these characteristics.

Most of our employers provide generous formal and informal health-related benefits. If we’re sick, they let us take time off to visit the doctor, usually with no loss of wages. Our employment is relatively stable and our hours regular and predictable.

While many of us, particularly in medical institutions, interact with those in less rarified circumstances, we have the luxury of retreating into our fortunate bubble when we leave the office.

This bright, monochromatic life skews our thinking about public policy. When we ask ourselves, “What can the government or employers do to improve people’s health?” we tend to conjure up solutions we imagine would work on ourselves or the half-marathon runner in the adjacent office or the overweight colleague across the hall.

For years, I’ve asked roomfuls of doctors and nurses how employers might help stanch Americans’ rapid increase in obesity. Their answers fit the stereotype. “My office had a walkathon competition.” “My company opened a gymnasium for employees.” “My employer pays 50 percent of gym membership costs.” “We have twice-weekly yoga classes in the boardroom.” “Human Resources offers wellness classes.” “Our cafeteria offers healthy options.”

The problem is that many of America’s most serious health problems reside in people whose lives and jobs do not remotely resemble those of policy-shapers.

7-11 isn’t going to build a gymnasium for the guy working the night shift. The long-haul trucker won’t be participating in an office walkathon. The fast-food restaurant can’t give a complimentary Planet Fitness membership to the burger flipper who only brings in a few hundred dollars in extra profits annually — and whose stay is likely short-term.

The single mother working three part-time jobs probably won’t fit the yoga class into her schedule. When she or her children are sick, a doctor’s visit likely means a difficult-to-afford loss of wages and perhaps a disgruntled boss. The dayworker outside The Home Depot won’t be taking HR’s wellness classes.

At Reason.com, Peter Suderman notes a congressional proposal — popular with Republicans and Democrats alike — to create a medical tax deduction for gym memberships and fitness classes (“Republicans Want a Tax Break For Gym Memberships. That’s a Terrible Idea.”). He astutely argues that the primary beneficiaries would be the fitness industry and people who already have gym memberships. Plus, it would only matter for people who itemize tax deductions, with the largest breaks accruing to those in the highest tax brackets.

A year or so back, I had a heated discussion with a physician who thought the key to better health lay in more intimate involvement of doctors in the lives of their patients — the doctor as life guide. I argued that her aspiration was noble but that in a country of 200,000 primary care doctors treating 320,000,000 patients — many transient and most outside the elite bubble — her idea, while noble and great when it works, would mostly serve the fortunate few.

This bias — focusing on what motivates ourselves and our similar acquaintances — permeates health care policy with an unintended and sometimes destructive elitism. In a rare act of bipartisanship, we squander scarce resources where they add little to health.

Robert Graboyes is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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