Can We Not Afford Vitality?

One of many, many reasons I became interested in herbalism is because I have viewed it not only as a path to a better quality of life for people, but I also hold out the possibility that broad use of herbs—after, of course, fresh, nutrient-dense food—would be much less expensive than our current failing system of health care.

Last week, Washington Post writer Ezra Klein blogged about the higher healthcare costs borne by Americans than their counterparts in Canada, Germany, France and many other countries. The reason for the differences? The governments of some countries, such as England, set the prices for tests and pharmaceuticals, and the governments of others, such as Japan, intervene in the price-setting by insurers and providers if they fail to reach an agreement. In the U.S., Medicare and Medicaid set the prices they’ll pay, but beyond that, “it’s a free-for-all,” Klein writes. “Providers largely charge what they can get away with, often offering different prices to different insurers, and an even higher price to the uninsured.”

Further, “Two of the five most profitable industries in the United States—the pharmaceuticals industry and the medical device industry—sell health care. With margins of almost 20 percent, they beat out even the financial sector for sheer profitability.”

In the debates leading up to the passage of the Affordable Care Act in early 2010, no one that I know of addressed the real issue: No one defined “health.” Maybe this seems academic, but seriously, how can anyone pass a law making something more (or less) affordable if they don’t agree on what they’re talking about?

Health is not a simple subject. It means different things to different people, and includes sexuality and spirituality, the emotions and the intellect—not just physical well being or lack of illness. And maybe “health” is too neutral a word and what I’m really talking about is vitality: how well a person’s vitality flows.

During the health care debates, I had lots of questions, most of which were along the lines of, “Will doing such and such make us healthier, more vital?” One of the surest ways to cut costs our of the health care system is to ensure the vitality of people—help them ensure their own vitality—so that they don’t need to tap the “care” provided by fancy medical devices and pharma.

One of the authors of a report cited by Klein is Princeton economist Uwe Reinhardt, who noted the “opportunity costs” involved in all the “health care spending”:  “The money we spend on health care is money we don’t spend educating our children, or investing in infrastructure, scientific research and defense spending. So if what this means is we ultimately have overmedicalized, poorly educated Americans competing with China, that’s not a very good investment.”

The word “overmedicalized” leaps out at me. And takes me back to those debates. Everything seemed to be about the money—not actually improving people’s health. Granted, the government can and does set the tone for health through agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, even the U.S. Department of Agriculture through its suggestions on what to eat. But as observers know, people come and go from these agencies back into trade associations and industry that push the interests of industry, including subsidized commodity agriculture, makers of pharmaceuticals, and companies that manufacture pesticides and herbicides and food additives.

The medical cartel that has existed in the United States since the mid-1800s—“cartel” because of its clout and ability to limit the number of would-be physicians—has done a splendid job, too, of silencing providers of non-mainstream practices. Mainstream practices back then included the use of mercury and blood-letting and later morphed into high-test plant extracts, such as cocaine and morphine, by companies such as Merck, according to a talk about the history of medicine in the United State by herbalist Guido Masé at last year’s International Herb Symposium. Non-mainstream practices included enhanced nutrition, hydrotherapy, and herbs.

The mainstream medical field brought us other things, too, such as chemotherapeutic agents—the forerunners of which were derived from World War I-era mustard gas as well as penicillin. Now, this last, I can’t necessarily argue with. Antibiotics have saved lives. If I were bitten by a tick and had a good idea that I probably had been infected with Borrelia burgdorferi, the spirochete that causes Lyme disease, I would want a lot of doxycycline to try to stamp it out as quickly as possible. That said, even back when they started making synthetic—and cheap—versions of antibiotics, scientists predicted bacterial resistance and it came to pass within five years, according to Masé.

“Anytime you get into an arms race with the planet,” he says “you’re going to lose.”

The thing about herbalism is, it’s not covered by insurance so people who seek the services of an herbalist have to pay out of pocket. Affordability of such services is a constant point of discussion among herbalists as we want to be able to help everyone, not just those most capable of paying for consultations and plant remedies.

But those consultations can run an hour and a half or more; it’s not the in-and-out kind of thing I’ve experienced in both a primary care setting as well as with a specialist. The people who work in those settings—even if they want to spend more time with patients—are constrained by what insurance will cover. And as for plant remedies, most herbalists are happy and willing to show their clients how to make their own. That can help keep costs down for clients.

Masé also linked the post-World War II system of health care squarely with the petrochemical industry. He’s not the only one concerned about the effects of fossil fuels on health care. Dan Bednarz writes about oil and its relationship to medicine here.

To the extent that herbalists can help others develop their own relationships with plants, to show that health and vitality go beyond the limits of the current health system, and to create a community within their communities where people can find other sources of health-related information, they serve as a safety net in the topsy-turvy times that are already upon us.

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