Viewpoints

Whole Foods' CEO Joins the Health Care Debate

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Americans are approaching health care reform like a nervous patient at the doctor's office — with a mix of fear and hope, maybe knowing that there might be some pain involved, plus a bill to pay at the end.

The Obama administration wants to get more Americans covered by insurance while at the same time making the system more efficient. But as the town-hall melees and fiery rhetoric surrounding the issue have illustrated, Obama's prognosis for health care change has become a festering wound.

Food retailers, to their credit, have waded right into the middle of the fracas, offering some ideas, suggestions and examples of programs that work.

They seem to be making important contributions to the process, from Wal-Mart Stores' call for a mandate on businesses to insure their workers to Safeway Chief Executive Officer Steve Burd's series of talks about his success in using employee incentives to control health care costs. Kroger Co., while not a vocal participant in the debate, hosted President Obama in one of its Virginia stores as he pitched the need for reform and took a few questions from workers in the audience.

Last week another familiar voice from the industry chimed in, when John Mackey, the founder, chairman and CEO of Whole Foods Market, penned an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal.

Known for his iconoclastic personality and libertarian views, Mackey outlined eight suggestions for how the government could save money through health care reform, such as allowing insurance companies to compete across state lines and making it easier for taxpayers to make voluntary contributions on their tax forms to help fund medical care for the uninsured.

It is fitting that someone who helped usher the natural and organic lifestyle into the mainstream opined on the issue of health care reform, but Mackey chose to fire up his argument with political hot-button words that detracted from his message. In his call for free-market solutions and individual responsibility, Mackey in the first three paragraphs of his piece decried “socialism,” “entitlements” and “government takeovers,” adopting the oft-repeated verbiage of the incendiary talk-show circuit.

That probably alienated half the audience from taking seriously the rest of his piece, which assumed a much more rational tone. He cited examples of how health insurance plays out among the rank-and-file workers at Whole Foods, noting that employees — 89% of Whole Food's workers are insured by the company — have a high-deductible plan that keeps costs down, and they also each receive up to $1,800 per year to spend on health and wellness.

Observers have offered both praise and criticism of Mackey's proposals and Whole Foods' health plans, but as has often been the case in the past, it's his approach that really needs work.

In the company's quarterly financial conference calls, Mackey turns much of the duties for explaining the company's fiscal condition over to Whole Foods' highly regarded management team. Maybe he should direct one of them to be the point person in the health care debate as well.

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Contributors

David Orgel

David Orgel is executive director, content & user engagement, of Supermarket News (SN) and its website, SupermarketNews.com. Orgel delivers his opinions on industry trends through a bi-weekly...

Carol Angrisani

Carol Angrisani is an associate editor at Supermarket News. Along with covering the packaged goods beat, she also manages SN’s annual private-label and ethnic marketing supplements. Carol...
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