Whole Foods’ CEO John Mackey received some unexpected backlash for an op-ed piece he wrote for the Wall Street Journal which enumerated “Eight things we can do to improve health care without adding to the deficit”. Before I address some of the points Mackey makes in his piece, I would like to point out that I am the perfect example of Mackey’s biggest customer: a health-conscious, ecologically-minded, post-Boomer consumer who prefers organic and humane farming practices to traditional supermarket offerings; someone who has been touting a “green” lifestyle long before it was de rigeur; and someone who doesn’t mind spending a little more for locally-grown produce or the nice choice of bakery and prepared foods available at Whole Foods.
Mackey’s list reads like the Corporatists' Playbook of Healthcare. Why would he want to alienate his core constituency — humanitarians, hippies, vegetarians, macrobiotic dieters, Budhhists, and well-heeled liberals? Why would he pander to the people who are least likely to shop at his stores? Is this a new marketing strategy?
Mackey described himself in 2005 as “a businessman and a free market libertarian” and has made campaign contributions to libertarian candidates, according to public records. Yet, despite this admission of libertarianism, Mackey has made no comments on record (that I can find after an exhaustive search) that condemn the invasion of Iraq, the continued quagmire in Afghanistan, war-profiteering of companies like Halliburton and Blackwater, or of the TARP bailout last September; all of which contributed exponentially to the national debt and deficits.
He did spend a lot of time on Yahoo chat rooms using an anonymous handle that promoted the financial health of Whole Foods and undermined his target buyout, Wild Oats. Whole Foods procured Wild Oats and eliminated its main competition.
My problem with Mackey is not with his politics, but rather the ill-informed and bad ideas he promotes in order to undermine the single-payer plan Obama and most of the voters want on the table for health care reform.
Mackey promotes Health Savings Accounts (sold in your neighborhood bank), changes in tort laws (pro-business, anti-victim), allowing individuals to get tax breaks on premiums (tax breaks already exist for people paying their own health insurance), making health insurance like “cafeteria” benefits for the consumer to decide “what is covered” and not the law. For example, consumers can opt out of cancer coverage or maternity coverage and then, with bad luck, get cancer or get pregnant and have to pay for all associated care. As a licensed insurance agent, I can attest that most people not only don't read their policies to know what is already exempt or considered a "pre-existing condition", but most don't expect to get seriously ill and are not prepared for the financial consequences if they do.
"Health care is a service that we all need, but just like food and shelter it is best provided through voluntary and mutually beneficial market exchanges."
That’s essentially how medical insurance has worked for the past 50 years, leaving millions uninsured, millions of claims denied, millions of consumers going bankrupt over medical expenses and making health insurance the least competitive, least transparent and least fair product available to us through the free market. It’s not a free market. It’s rigged.
Many bloggers and columnists have expressed outrage over Mackey’s callous plan, a plan that will not be part of any health care bills in a Democratic legislature. But, what is more outrageous than his homage to profit and his ultimately unrealistic worldview is his short-sightedness in alienating his main constituency. Millions of Whole Food customers are now boycotting his store. I hope this is an expensive lesson to Mackey to stay under the radar.