The following essay appeared on the website of the Hastings Center, which is running a colloquium on the values behind health care reform.
“One could make a good case that improvements in education and job creation could be a better use of limited funds than better medical care.” – Daniel Callahan, “Medical Progress: Unintended Consequences”
The president emeritus of the Hastings Center opens his insightful essay with the observation that the American people’s faith in medical progress is boundless. In this short comment, I want to expand on his thoughts by reexamining the cardinal tenets of that faith, since they embody a set of values that distract us from building a society that promotes good health, an infinitely more difficult task than building a better sick care system.
What are the core values driving our belief in high-tech medicine?
At their root, they are the values of good old-fashioned American individualism. This is the land of opportunity, where everyone has the God-given right to thrive and prosper. It’s also the land of the second chance, a place for the self-made and remade man – like President Ronald Reagan or Don Draper of the award-winning new drama “Mad Men.”
Death in this value system is not the end of a journey, but a rotten break. It’s the end of our chance to make a mark in the world, thus a fate to be avoided at all cost. Ray Kurzweil, the nonpareil Baby Boomer inventor, is the faith’s high priest, gobbling dozens of pills and supplements daily in his quest to remain on his “Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever,” to use the title of his 2005 book.
These values have been written into the laws that govern the delivery of health care, especially Medicare. That universal, single-payer system was designed to provide health care for our oldest and therefore most vulnerable citizens. But in setting up that system, Congress said the government (i.e., all of us) would pay for any medical intervention deemed “reasonable and necessary” to return a person to health, and it could never consider cost when making those determinations. How deeply ingrained are those values? So deeply ingrained that it was child’s play this past summer for right wing demagogues to stir up passionate outrage over nonexistent efforts to “pull the plug on grandma.”
The public religiously believes there will be a technological fix for the hundreds of diseases that may hit us as our bodies degenerate, and tithes accordingly. Any effort to limit prices for what must be paid for new technologies is met with cries from industry that it will stifle innovation. The taxpayers provide the seed corn for new technology by investing nearly $30 billion a year in basic research through the National Institutes of Health and other government health-related programs (this year supplemented with $10 billion in stimulus act funds).
But that’s just the start of the process. Those researchers are encouraged to patent their findings and start companies to bring their inventions to market, a reflection of another core American value – entrepreneurialism. The government refuses to limit prices so these companies will have “incentives” to leap the regulatory barriers to entry. And even when it invests in comparative effectiveness research to determine if these new inventions are any better than older interventions, the government will insist that those findings cannot be used to determine payment policy.