Whole Foods’ founder has a grandiose vision for fixing American health care

Doing for health care what he did for groceries?
Doing for health care what he did for groceries?
Image: AP/Richard Drew
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Whole Foods founder John Mackey is nearly as well known for making controversial statements about health care as he is for popularizing natural and health foods. He’s now putting his money where his mouth is, with an idea for a plan to improve the health of first his employees, then his customers, and then, well, how about all of America.

“Health care is so broken in America,” Mackey told Bloomberg Businessweek’s Brad Stone. “If we allow markets to work, if we allow entrepreneurs to get in here and do things like I’m talking about doing, we will pretty much solve the health-care problem in a generation.”

His plan focuses (at least in part) on America’s diet, which he describes as “terrible.”

Step one, according to the Bloomberg piece, is opening Whole Foods’ “Total Health Immersion” program to more employees. It’s a free weight loss retreat that includes medically supervised lab testing, cooking classes, and talks with nutritionists. And he wants to start offering it to customers too, as a weekend getaway, in Austin first, and then in other major cities if it works

The next step would be a Whole Foods medical clinic, inspired by one started by Rosen Hotels & Resorts. It has an on site medical facility focused on nutrition and preventative care that serves employees, which that company’s founder says substantially reduced costs. Mackey was inspired to create something similar for his own employees, and potentially for his stores’ customers after touring the facility.

A Whole Foods’ spokesman Stone spoke to described these programs as mere “brainstorms,” but he says Mackey seems serious.

Mackey’s not the first to propose internal clinics and wellness programs to reduce costs. But the track record of these programs is mixed, at best (paywall). Research has found some evidence of cost savings from proactive disease management, but only after several years, and has found little long term gain from the sorts of wellness programs Mackey is touting.

Opening a clinic for customers faces potentially bigger hurdles. At his own company, Mackey can incentivize staff to participate in wellness programs or choose his clinic. That’ll be tougher in a competitive health care market where his company has no particular expertise. Also, the average Whole Foods shopper is more likely to be higher income and health focused already, and less likely to need preventative or nutritional care.

As for Mackey’s prophecies about diet, market-based solutions, and fixing health care in a generation, yes it’s true that nutrition and preventative care are hugely important, but he ignores other massive drivers of health care costs.

They include administrative inefficiency, inappropriately aggressive and toofrequent testing and treatment, the through-the-roof cost of end of life care. Ohand drug prices. There’s also a huge amount of inequity in the system, and regional variation in health and health care costs.

He says Obamacare is a stealthy attempt to replace employer insurance with a single-payer. Mackey may not like it, but Obamacare at least attempts to deal with some of these issues.