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The Whole Foods Boycott

If the CEO of a grocery giant such as Kroger or Safeway had written a Wall Street Journal op-ed opposing the “public option” in health care reform, it’s unlikely there would have been much of a backlash. Indeed, with right-wing America’s noisy revolt over health care reform in high gear, one more business journal op-ed on the topic probably would have not stirred much attention.

Not so with the brewing grassroots protest against Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s recent Journal op-ed. Indeed, Mackey’s libertarian-flavored blast against the specter of “a massive new health-care entitlement” has touched a sensitive nerve with many health-conscious, reform-minded Americans.

In short order, a Boycott Whole Foods Facebook group signed up over 30,000 supporters. There have been protests for single-payer health care outside Whole Foods stores in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Austin. Across the country newspaper columnists and bloggers have also weighed in on the controversy.

It’s not surprising really, considering Whole Foods eco-healthy image. It’s likely many of their customers take at face value the company’s identity as a leader in “socially responsible” business. Accordingly, they might also have assumed that a wealthy businessman whose success stems from promoting “natural foods” and “healthy living” would be on the side of progressive health care reform.

Of course, they would be mistaken in that assumption. In fact, Mackey’s libertarian notions of reform are a disaster, guaranteed to lead the nation even further away from fixing what’s wrong with health care. Opposing any “public option” insurance plan, Mackey instead calls for such measures as the repeal of “government mandates” regulating what insurance companies must cover. “What is insured and what is not insured should be determined by individual customer preferences and not through special-interest lobbying,” declares the natural foods CEO.

In Mackey’s ideal libertarian world, deregulated insurance companies would supply products based only on the unfettered demand of health care “customers,” leading thus to happiness all around. Unfortunately, this tidy train of free-market logic cannot explain why insurance companies now routinely deny coverage to those with “pre-existing conditions.” It’s certainly not because consumers want it. Could it perhaps have something to do with the fact that—supply and demand be damned—they just can?

As a libertarian, Mackey would eventually like to see both government and business freed from all health insurance obligations. The responsibility for access to health insurance would become a strictly personal responsibility. But since Whole Foods has to compete in the here and now of today’s economy (i.e., keep out unions), the company offers a health plan based on high-deductible health savings accounts. In his op-ed, Mackey touts the Whole Foods plan as a model for American business.

Typically, health savings accounts offer not only high deductibles, but also increased co-pays and more uncovered services. The Whole Foods plan includes a $2,500 deductible that must be met before coverage begins for employees who work more than 30 hours weekly. Mackey brags that the company pays 100 percent of insurance premiums and deposits up to $1,800 yearly in individual savings accounts that can be used toward out-of-pocket costs.

Sound good? Actually, Mackey’s case for the company health plan only makes the argument for real health care reform even stronger. This is a company that employs a relatively young and transient work force, most of whom start at hourly wages more in the $8.00 to $13.00 per hour range. In other words, this is a workforce disinclined to use their benefits much, not only because they’re largely younger and healthier, but also because their modest pay serves to make employees think twice about any out-of-pocket medical expenses.

This is all good if you’re a CEO looking to cut down on how much your company spends on health benefits. It’s also good if you believe, as Mackey does, that there’s a problem with people using health care frivolously, as if anyone ever seeks medical care just for the fun of it. Is there no irony in an exponent of “healthy living” promoting high-deductible health plans with their built-in bias against preventative medicine?

But the self-congratulatory hype that is Whole Foods trade in marketing only goes so far. According to a former Whole Foods executive, reports Judy Dugan on ConsumerWatchdog.org (Aug. 20, 2009), the company health plan is not nearly as delightful as Mackey contends. It contains “dozens and dozens of hidden system charges,” including a co-pay system based not on fixed rates, but a percentage of medical bills. For those “team members” unlucky enough to have major surgery, for example, the Whole Foods plan could potentially leave them still owing thousands in out-of-pocket dollars.

There are other exclusions at work, such as the six months employment it takes before “team members” become eligible for the health plan. This is no small factor for a company whose annual turnover rate hovers around 20 percent or more, according to some reports. As for part-time employees, they’re mostly out of luck.

Such a critique could go on, but perhaps the larger point is this: While private health insurance plans vary in quality, there is no private insurance-based employer health plan anywhere that can adequately address the broad health care needs of the American public. The entire health care system needs an overhaul. That overhaul should begin with the declaration that affordable access to care belongs to everyone. Forget all the crank reform schemes dreamed up to justify continuing the private insurance system. Profit should not be part of the health care equation. Period.

The Whole Foods backlash has caught some by surprise. But it shouldn’t be surprising. Any privileged purveyor of “conscious capitalism” happy to grow rich marketing natural foods and healthy living while lecturing the public that health care is not their right is only asking for trouble. The backlash against the natural foods giant also gains fire from the deep revulsion currently felt by many Americans toward the grotesque right-wing attacks on health care reform.

Instead of offering an enlightened perspective on health care, however, Mackey gives us the pseudo-clever nonsense of Margaret Thatcher. “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money,” Mackey quotes the former British prime minister to begin his Journal op-ed. Of course, by “other people’s money” what Thatcher or Mackey really mean is their money, the money of people of their economic status.

Unfortunately, the problem with capitalism is that sometimes owners of large grocery chains grow rich on other people’s cheap labor. They then think this qualifies them to solve the problems of society. Predictably, they always seem to come up with solutions that favor their exclusive economic interests over the common good.

Fortunately, you can only tell the people to eat their proverbial cake for so long. As John Mackey has learned, the guillotine of public opinion can cut a sharp line through all the hypocrisy.

MARK T. HARRIS is the author of “Welcome to ‘Whole-Mart’: Rotten Apples in the Social Responsibility Industry,” which appeared in the Winter 2006 issue of Dissent magazine. You can write to him at Mark@Mark-T-Harris.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mark T. Harris is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. He grew up a few blocks from the site of the old Lindlahr Sanitarium frequented by Eugene Debs in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst. However, none of the teachers in the local schools ever spoke a word about Debs or the clinic. He does remember Carl Sandburg’s Elmhurst home, which was torn down in the 1960s to build a parking lot. Email: Harris@writersvoice.org

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