By Casey Shea
RepresentUs Content Director

April 20, 2023

I don’t need to tell you that our democracy is gravely ill. Special interests spend billions to influence our elections and lobby our politicians. Politicians are using their power to make voting harder. Because of this rampant corruption, Americans’ trust in their government is plummeting.

It’s easy to see how corruption negatively affects our democracy. But what you may not know is that it also negatively affects our health. According to our friends at Healthy Democracy, Healthy People, states with better voting access and voter participation also have better health outcomes, and states with less voting access saw worse health outcomes.

States with better voting access and voter participation also have better health outcomes.


That might seem a little shocking — but it isn’t surprising. When everyday Americans have the freedom to make their voices heard in government, they make the best choices for themselves and our country. But when we allow special interests to hijack our government and elections, the needs of we the people get forgotten.

Here are four ways our broken political system is making us sick:

1. Healthcare lobbyists pay politicians to keep healthcare prices high

The U.S. spends more on healthcare than any other country in the world. In 2021, we spent $12,318 per person – double the average in comparable nations. We pay much higher prices for everything, whether it’s surgeries, medical tests or prescription drugs.

This bar graph shows that the U.S. has the most expensive healthcare in the world. The U.S. spends $12,318 per-capita on healthcare. The next closest country is Germany at $7,838 per capita followed by Sweden at $6,262 per capita, Canada at $5,905 per capita, the UK at $5,387 per capita, Italy at $4,038 per capita, South Korea at $3,914 per capita, and Poland at $2,568 per capita.


You’d think that with all that spending we’d be the healthiest nation in the world. But in reality, American life expectancy continues to drop while it rises in other countries.

According to a 2022 analysis of high-income countries, “The U.S. has the lowest life expectancy at birth, the highest death rates for avoidable or treatable conditions, the highest maternal and infant mortality, and among the highest suicide rates.”

Because healthcare is so expensive, many Americans can’t afford to get the care they need. Half of adults struggle to afford healthcare costs. And last year, nearly 40% skipped or delayed medical care because they couldn’t pay for it. Many are forced to ration life-saving medications like insulin because it's too expensive. Tragically, this costs some people their lives.

When we delay care, minor conditions can become terminal diagnoses. In the end, it means Americans end up needing more healthcare — at higher cost — because they couldn’t afford to treat their conditions early. It’s no wonder America has the highest rate of avoidable deaths.

How the &%$! do we end up sicker despite the most expensive healthcare? Government corruption.

The healthcare industry spends hundreds of millions more than any other industry lobbying politicians. In 2020 alone, they spent $714 million. In return, Republican and Democratic lawmakers avoid passing legislation that would curb healthcare prices, despite repeatedly promising to do so during their campaigns.

Watch Sia break down everything that’s wrong with our healthcare — and our government:

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2. Big Pharma triggered an opioid epidemic, and then prevented Congress from fighting it

The opioid epidemic continues to be a national tragedy. In 2021, over 100,000 Americans died from an opioid overdose. Overall, more Americans have died from opioids than from fighting in the Vietnam War.

This is not only a tragic tale of addiction and its devastating impact — it’s also an egregious example of how our corrupt political system is literally killing us. Here’s how.

We’ve known that opioids are dangerously addictive. Yet in the 1990’s, under pressure from Big Pharma, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved oxycodone to treat moderate to severe pain. Pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma even fraudulently claimed it was less addictive than other opioids.

We all know now that decision was a disaster. Big Pharma flooded America’s streets with hundreds of billions of pills and helped trigger a devastating addiction crisis. Even patients who used the drug as prescribed quickly became hooked, and some even overdosed on their legally-obtained medication.

Meanwhile, drug companies literally paid doctors to write more prescriptions, and pressured politicians to look the other way. From 2006-2015, Big Pharma spent $880 million lobbying state and federal officials across the country to increase opioid access and kill regulation, in some cases even writing the laws politicians passed.

As the crisis worsened, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) began investigating the pharmaceutical industry like the drug cartel it was. Even though the crisis was already spinning out of control, the DEA had the tools to rein it in. That is, until Congress stepped in.

"If you talk to [DEA agents], they'll tell you that this didn't need to happen. The guardrails were in place to prevent an opioid epidemic. And those guardrails were removed by the drug industry, by its lobbyists, by its allies in Congress and its allies in the Justice Department." — Washington Post journalist Scott Higham

Big Pharma banded together and poured millions into lobbying Congress to kneecap the DEA’s efforts. And they did. In 2016, federal politicians passed a law, signed by President Obama, that effectively removed the DEA’s ability to rein in excessive drug production. The 23 lawmakers who sponsored the bill — both Democrat and Republican — got more than $1.5 million in industry donations.

In the words of a DEA agent, “We didn't get defeated by the drug cartels. We got defeated by the K Street cartel.


This cycle of corruption is causing a cycle of death. Politicians are watching hundreds of Americans die every day while they do Big Pharma’s bidding – taking their money and passing legislation that ensures this crisis continues. More than 20 years later, over one million Americans are dead because of this blatant, legal corruption.

3. The food industry basically writes our federal dietary guidelines

You are what you eat, right?

When we go to the grocery store, we take for granted that the food on grocery store shelves is safe. We also trust that if we eat according to the government’s nutritional guidelines, we’ll be healthy. But in reality, powerful food and beverage companies have their thumb on the scale.

Let’s take a look at federal dietary guidelines. These guidelines matter because they help the public make healthy food choices and determine requirements for everything from school lunches to food labels. Every five years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has to update these guidelines, and the food industry spends millions to ensure their bottom line is protected, regardless of the science.

Ahead of the USDA’s 2015 update, there was a push to limit consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages because they’re bad for us. Simple enough, right?

Wrong. The food industry spent $34 million on lobbying efforts that year, and when the guidelines were released, they made no mention of sugary drinks. This kind of industry meddling has been going on for years.

A similar cycle of corruption is happening with sodium. Americans eat nearly twice the level the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends. Even though we’ve known that too much salt is bad for our health for decades, the FDA has spent years dragging its feet. That delay is likely to cause over a quarter of a million deaths over the next 10-15 years.

An unhealthy diet is the leading cause of health problems in our country. Half of us live with at least one diet-related chronic illness. 700,000 people die each year because of poor diet. Meanwhile, politicians ignore basic nutrition science to cater to industry lobbyists.


4. Toxic chemical lobbyists are poisoning Americans

The government is responsible for ensuring everything we use, eat, and buy is safe. At least in theory. In reality, our corrupt political system lets chemical companies poison our water supply, pollute our military bases, and sometimes even kill us.

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at PFAS, a group of chemicals used as water or stain repellent in everything from furniture to dental floss to pizza boxes. They’re sometimes nicknamed “forever chemicals” because, well, they stick around forever.

They don’t break down in the environment, which means they get into our food and water — and us. Once they get into our bodies, they stay there. It’s estimated that 98% of Americans have PFAS in their blood.

While the dangers of PFAS are still being debated, a growing body of studies show PFAS have been linked to a range of health issues, including cancer, birth defects and developmental issues. Our own government agencies, like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have admitted that federal regulations underestimate how dangerous PFAS are.

The chemical industry makes billions off PFAS each year, so they invest millions in lobbying to protect their bottom line. In 2019 and 2020, lawmakers introduced over 100 bills attempting to regulate PFAS. In response, PFAS producers and industry groups spent at least $61 million lobbying the federal government. “Magically”, almost all these bills failed.

Remember, PFAS are just one group of toxic chemicals. We can’t even ban asbestos, which causes cancer and kills 40,000 Americans each year. And even as we learn more about just how dangerous these and other chemicals are, the industry just lobbies harder. In 2022, chemical companies spent a record-breaking $66 million lobbying the federal government.

Frankly, all of this is the inevitable result of a political system controlled by special interests.

Whichever political party is in control of it, the outcome of our corrupt political system is the same: Special interests win big, and we, the American people, lose our lives.

The situation looks dire — and it is. But there’s a hopeful story here as well. As the Health & Democracy Index shows, the more power voters have, the better our public health is. That means we can literally save lives by fixing our broken political system. And we know just how to do that.

The anti-corruption movement unites Americans across the political spectrum to pass common-sense laws that stop political bribery, protect our freedom to vote, and slam shut the revolving door — and we’ve already won over 170 anti-corruption victories.

But to keep winning, we need your help — whether that’s volunteering your time, spreading awareness of these life-or-death corruption issues by sharing blogs like this on social media, or helping fund future victories.

Take the first step by joining the movement below:


Contributors: Meara Geraty, RepresentUs Writer; Anh-Linh Kearney, RepresentUs Research Analyst

RepresentUs is America’s leading anti-corruption organization working city-by-city, state-by-state to fix our broken political system.