Friday, July 7, 2017

Food as a Human Right

When I saw the headline on LinkedIn that food is not a commodity, but a human right, I wondered why we weren’t trying to solve the food insecurity problem in the US the same way we are trying to solve the healthcare problem.  Now that both food and healthcare have become human rights, wouldn’t it make sense to treat them the same?

In that case, Congress should immediately start debating a bill to provide food insurance for everyone.  It’s not fair that some people with good jobs at big companies should be able to provide sustenance for themselves and their families while people without a job or with a minimum wage job struggle to do so and must rely on food stamps (SNAP) and a number of other government programs.  (Many of these programs are so obscure or complex that local food banks have strategies to educate the poor about what programs they may be eligible for and how to apply for them.)

If talking about insurance will solve the healthcare problem, surely it can do the same for food.  Just set up a system where citizens have to sort through a list of insurance providers (depending on the state they live in) and then sign up with the one that best matches their eating needs.  Of course everyone must be forced to participate and pay the same premiums regardless of the size of their family, how much they eat or how often they shop.  Each insurance company would negotiate prices of every food item with some of the grocery stores.  You would just go in, pick up your items and hand over a small co-payment at checkout.  Months later you would receive an Explanation of Benefits (EOB) from your insurance company telling you what amount was covered and what you owed.  Some time later you would receive a bill from the grocery store telling you what the insurance was paying for and what they think you owed.  If there were any discrepancy, you would spend hours on the phone trying to work it out (and no one could help you without written permission because of food privacy laws).

If you had one brand of insurance, you would be covered at Kroger and Target; but when you were on vacation you might have to shop “out of network” and pay higher prices.  (One insurance company has a policy that would cover you at home and on vacation, but it’s not offered in your state.)

The grocery stores could stop advertising prices, because only people with certain insurance would be covered at their store and not at the store down the street.  And you could only buy the brands of food available in your store.  As farmers and food companies increased prices to them, the stores could use that as leverage with insurers to increase prices.  This would force the insurance companies to increase premiums and force the government to increase the subsidies to those who couldn’t afford it.  Various groups would demand that the government require everyone, even vegetarians, to be covered for the purchase of steaks, and that those who chose to shop at more expensive or exclusive grocery stores offering all-natural, organic or health food items must have the right to do so (regardless of their personal financial situation).

Would that be a wonderful system to ensure that prices for food be kept under control and that everyone was treated fairly?  Of course not!  There is no incentive for anyone to worry about costs, prices or service.  Grocery stores would be competing with each other based on the size of the selection regardless of the cost of adding extra shelf space.  Lobbyists would be out in force to make sure every special interest (except the customer) got their piece of the action.  The paperwork would be a nightmare.  Customer service and responsiveness would drop like a rock, because those who used to be their customers and made choices (voting with their feet and their dollars) would be helpless participants.

This may not be the perfect analogy, but anyone who believes tinkering with insurance will solve the problems of affordability or quality with food, healthcare or anything else is missing the point.  Think about it.

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