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Commentary: Transparency Needed in More than Just Food

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By Gary Truitt

Over a decade ago, consumers and activist groups started asking, “Where does my food come from?” Actually, they wanted to know far more than just where; they wanted to know how, when, and why. As the foodie movement became chic, self-styled experts wanted to know more and more. Retailers and restaurants responded by demanding all kinds of information from producers. With the help of technology, you can now discover an amazing amount of information about your food in a matter of seconds. But, in some other key sectors of our economy, we consumers are still in the dark ages.

At first reluctant to give out production information, farms soon discovered the advantages of sharing their story with consumers. Big retailers like Wal-Mart drove this trend, but now even small restaurants will feature the story of how your fish is caught, chicken raised, or what your beef ate. A bar code on a package in a grocery store can tell you the farm where it was produced and if the factory that processed it had any peanut molecules floating around. The level of traceability and transparency in the food system today is a triumph of technology and cooperation. It serves as an example of what can be done when consumers make their demands known.

Other areas of our economy can boast of similar achievements. Watch a movie and, if you bother to sit through the credits, you can discover the names of almost everyone who had anything to do with the film — not only the location, the writers, directors, actors, and cameramen but down to the bus drivers, accountants, and even the people who cooked the food. Purchase a piece of music and you can readily learn where it was recorded, on what equipment it was recorded, and who took the photos for the liner notes.

Yet, get a prescription from your doctor, and you enter a black hole. My physician recently wrote me a prescription for a very common antibiotic.  Actually, he did not write out a prescription; he just clicked a few boxes on an iPad and the order was sent electronically to the pharmacy I had on file with his office.  When I asked if he knew what it would cost, he said no. When asked if my insurance covered this drug, he had no idea.  In other words, neither the prescriber nor the prescribee had or could obtain any information about the product in question. The situation did not improve when I got to the pharmacy.  They could tell me the cost but not explain why. The reason I asked was because one year ago the exact same prescription cost me $15. Now it cost $95.

When the pharmacist revived me with smelling salts after I passed out on his counter, he said something about the insurance company changing their formulary and that this was no longer a tier 1 drug. Ever try and get an answer about a formulary from the customer service line of your insurance company?  Now here is where the story takes a really bizarre twist.

By bringing up a free app on my smartphone, I was able to obtain a coupon, at no cost, that cut the $95 price tag in half. Why this works and how this works is a mystery to us normal humans. Yet it begs the question: if two taps with my finger can cut the price in half, why are they charging $95 to start with and why was it OK to only charge $15 a short time ago?

The issue of  medication costs is becoming a political one. Hillary Clinton made it a campaign issue, and Indiana Senator Braun has been talking about it of late. People with diabetes, who depend on insulin to live, have been especially vocal. In the past decade, they have seen the cost of the drug they depend on soar from around $20 to over $200.

This is a complicated problem and a very complex system, but the drug makers, pharmacies, and insurance companies had better begin to figure out a solution before the government steps in and makes an even bigger mess of things, like they did to many with the Affordable Care Act. Consumers are getting angry about being kept in the dark about their drugs and feeling ripped off with drug prices that change more often than gasoline prices do.  The food industry has proven transparency is achievable. Now let’s see it applied in other areas.