Some time ago, I wrote a cover story entitled “The Fat of the Land,” in which I outlined the clear additional health care costs of our nation’s overweight and obesity problem, and suggested that the health insurance industry had a clear interest in taking action to promote wellness as a means of loss control. The story got some interesting feedback, ranging from those who argued that my suggestion was tantamount to advocating for government control over what we eat…to those who shook their heads slowly at so many Americans’ willingness to eat and overeat to the point of self-destruction. Not long after I wrote this article, I was invited to speak at the Mississippi State University I-Day conference, and I gave a presentation on this same subject. Because my talk got pushed back a bit, it came right after a post-lunch dessert break, in which attendees were fed pieces of sheet cake and ice cream. Needless to say, my presentation on how overweight and obesity is costing this country some $60 billion a year in extra health care costs did not sit well with some in the audience.
Back when I wrote that article, I noted how the Heart Attack Grill was sort of the apex predator of a trend toward extreme food in the chain restaurant business. (The heart Attack Grill is no longer a chain, really, as it’s down to just one location, in Las Vegas.) Infamous for serving food that is really bad for you (like its 8,000-calorie Quadruple Bypass burger), the Heart Attack Grill lived up to its own name in 2010 when its spokesperson, the morbidly obese Baine Rivers, died of pneumonia, thought to be exacerbated by his extraordinary weight. Later that year, a patron actually suffered a heart attack while dining at the Heart Attack Grill, a story picked up with morbid glee by mainstream media outlets.
But attention on the Heart Attack Grill quickly waned as the public’s attention switched to the next bizarre story of the day; in an era of social media, the half-life for any oddball story is less time than it took me to write this sentence. Still, the Heart Attack Grill remained as a symbol of an ugly truth underscoring so many of the difficulties facing the health care system in general, and health insurance in particular. It is returning to the press once again, since a few days ago, an unofficial spokesperson for the restaurant, who ate theire frequently, had a heart attack right outside of the restaurant door. He later died. And I am sure the restaurant’s owner will express his sympathy over it all, but the guy still seems unlikely to stop selling fries intentionally cooked in pure lard to make them as unhealthy as possible, alongside towering burgers dripping with grease, to be chased with unfiltered Lucky Strikes after. This is his schtick; rebelling against the supposed political correctness of simply taking care of one’s own body. It’s a free country. He is within his rights to do so. But he’s also open to be called out for what he is: a recklessly irresponsible purveyor of harmful products that have, most likely, directly contributed to the death of two people so far and the hospitalization of at least one more. If you sold toys with the same disregard for the health of those who used them as the Heart Attack Grill has toward its patrons, you would be sent to jail.
I recently debated with a friend who did not think that, conceptually, insurance was a means to finance risk. I argued that it was; insurers themselves certainly see it that way, at any rate. With, say, commercial property insurance, if you are buying a policy to insure against fire, there is a real chance that you may never have a fire during the lifetime of the policy, especially if the insurer requires you to employ basic fire prevention measures. In commercial property, you can sell somebody fire insurance and then say the policy might be null and void if you don’t install fire alarms and fire extinguishers at your expense. Sounds a little harsh, but that makes sense. But we do not do the same thing in health insurance. Why not?