Massachusetts has a long track record of making headlines in the area of health care reform, whether or not Mitt Romney likes to talk about it.
In 2008, Massachusetts released results of its initiative requiring virtually all of its citizens to acquire health insurance. In short order, nearly three-quarters of Massachusetts’ 600,000 formerly uninsured acquired health insurance, most of them private insurance that did not run up the tab for taxpayers. The use of hospitals and emergency rooms for primary care fell dramatically, translating into an annual savings of nearly $70 million.
But that’s pocket change in the scheme of things, so the other shoe had to drop — and now it has. Massachusetts made news recently, this time for passing legislation that aims to impose a cap on overall health care spending. That ambition implies, even if it doesn’t quite manage to say, a very provocative word: rationing.
Health care rationing is something everyone loves to hate. Images of sweet, little old ladies being shoved out the doors of ERs that have met some quota readily populate our macabre fantasies.
But laying aside such melodrama, here is the stark reality: Health care is, always was, and always will be rationed. However much people hate the idea, it’s a fact, not a choice. The only choice we have is to ration it rationally, or irrationally. At present, we ration it — and everything it affects — irrationally.
The House Republicans on Thursday took another swipe at the alleged rationing in Obamacare, voting to eliminate the independent advisory panel that will propose cuts in Medicare spending when it grows substantially faster than the rest of the economy.
Most people have never heard of the Independent Payment Advisory Board, but they certainly got an earful about “death panels” and “rationing” in 2010 when Republicans used it to attack the Democrats’ health care reform bill. Stoking fear of death panels and rationing helped the Republicans win control of the House.
The IPAB has nothing to do with death panels or rationing. The 15-member panel of experts will offer Congress options for holding down Medicare’s spending whenever it grows out of control. Congress has the option of either allowing those cuts to go into effect, or enacting its own menu of cost control measures.
There is no shortage of skeptical analysts who suggest Congress will be just as likely to reject IPAB recommendations and substitute nothing at all. After all, every Congress over the past decade has rejected imposing previously enacted cuts on physician pay. Why will the IPAB cuts be any different?
The reality is that neither party has a good track record when it comes to holding down Medicare spending, and the level of debate Thursday reflected their perennial obsession with the next election, not the next generation. “Do you remember death panels?” cried Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., on the House floor. “It’s not necessarily a death panel, but it is a rationing panel and rationing does lead to scarcity for some. Who’s going to get the needed treatment, an 85-year-old or the 40-year-old with children?”
The way health care is administered in the United States is unsustainable and in need of fundamental reengineering — right? During the 2008 presidential race, the country appeared to be in agreement on this point. But that all changed somewhere, somewhere after the election of a dark-skinned new president with a foreign-sounding name whom even proud Medicare card-carrying Americans were viscerally driven to deride as a socialist.
This was recently reported in The Hill: “The six largest investor-owned health insurance companies saw a 22 percent increase in combined net income in the third quarter, putting them on pace to break profit records for 2010.” The president was castigated by loud little crowds around the country for championing the overwhelmingly popular idea of a publicly funded, public health insurance alternative to challenge the partly publicly funded, private health insurance companies’ assertion that they simply cannot provide their services any cheaper. Rather than groundbreaking legislation, what we got was the president being caricatured on national television, in effigy, as The Joker — and health insurance executives laughed all the way to the bank.
A true story, with changes made to protect privacy. An 89-year-old man with dementia, a heart condition, and other serious medical conditions fell in his Arizona apartment and broke his hip. His children, wanting the best possible care, arranged for him to be air-lifted to New York. There, the orthopaedic surgeon advised them that the chance of their father surviving hip surgery was very low, but he would do as the family wished. The man’s three children could not agree. Two would have avoided the surgery, but a third felt very strongly that everything that could be done for the father should be done. The other siblings, out of guilt and respect for the third, acceded. The surgery took place, and the father spent three days in the ICU before his heart gave out.
Here’s the terrible and hard-hearted question I pose: If the costs of this procedure and hospitalization had not been covered by Medicare, would the man’s children have proceeded along the chosen path? I am guessing not. I don’t know the total bill incurred, but it was certainly in the range of tens of thousands of dollars.
In the US, we don’t have a good societal process for making these decisions. In the United Kingdom, though, they do, as reported by Bob Wachter in a recent blog post. Here are some excerpts:
Remember death panels? Politicians have found a new way to use health care reform as a punching bag.
The Independent Payments Advisory Board (IPAB) will be a 15-member expert panel appointed by the president and approved by the Senate that is charged with coming up with ways of cutting Medicare spending when payments grow significantly faster than the rest of the economy.
Last week, President Obama, in his speech outlining his long-term plan for cutting the deficit, upped the ante for IPAB by ratcheting up the level of cuts the board could impose if the senior citizen health care program grew too fast. Congress, under the law, would have to substitute comparable cuts of its own, or the IPAB’s plan would go into effect.
It didn’t take long for the fireworks to start. The New York Times reported this morning that politicians from both sides of the aisle are lining up not only to deep-six the president’s latest IPAB proposal, but to get rid of it entirely. Republicans like Paul Ryan of Wisconsin cried rationing. Democrats like Pete Stark of California said such decisions are better left in the hands of Congress.Continue reading…
Republicans pledged to do it as part of their manifesto during the midterm election campaigns. And House Speaker John Boehner, less than a day after the elections, vowed that the GOP would “do everything we can to try to repeal this bill and replace it with common sense reforms to bring down the cost of health care.”
But why was this such a high priority? The lack of cost controls? Unfunded state mandates? Questions surrounding federal funding of abortions? Well, yes, but the go-to critique of health care reform can be summed up in one word:
Recently, as part of a response to the FDA revoking its approval for a late-stage breast cancer drug, several key Republicans criticized this kind of rationing, but set their sights on a much bigger target:
“Unfortunately, this is only just the beginning,” they continued. “The new health reform law — the so-called Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — creates 159 new boards, commissions and agencies that will destroy the doctor-patient relationship and replace it with federal bureaucrats deciding who gets care and what treatments they can receive,” The Hill’s Jason Millman reported.
Are the nation’s polltakers part of a surreptitious plot to convince us that what’s good for us is bad and what’s bad is good? A new Harris poll is the third in the space of a week claiming that the public (or some subset of it) is badly misinformed about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. This follows on the heels of similar polls commissioned by Kaiser and the National Council on Aging (which I have criticized at my blog).
Yet the people responding to these polls appear to have a much better understanding than those asking the questions. Consider this tidbit from Harris:
Eighty-two percent think the bill will result in rationing of health care or that it might (it won’t).
Really? Well, what would a reasonable person expect to happen if (a) 32 million newly insured people try to double their consumption of health care, (b) 70 million or so additional people are moved into much more generous insurance than they have today, (c) most of the remaining 200 million people are promised preventive services without the deductibles and copays they face today and (d) almost nothing is done to increase the supply of providers?
Do you think health services are going to magically emerge from thin air? Or is it more reasonable to anticipate significant rationing?
Suppose you were in a triage situation and you had to choose between two patients, deciding who lives and who dies. Are there any principles you could rely on to make your choice?
Alex Tabarrok had an interesting post the other day at Marginal Revolution in which he asked readers to imagine standing behind a Rawlsian veil of ignorance. This is a thought experiment in which you are about to be born into a world, but you don’t know which person in that world you will be (e.g., you could be born smart, dumb; rich, poor; black, white; etc.). You can decide the rules governing the world you are about to be born into, but you must make your choice “position blind.”
What decision rules would you choose?
For his part, Tabarrok focuses on how to allocate kidneys among transplant prospects and his own solution is: allocate scarce organs so as to maximize remaining years of life:
In the current system, a 60-year-old patient can be given a 20-year-old kidney — that’s a waste because the life expectancy of the kidney is longer than that of the patient; it’s like putting a new clutch in a car that is rusting away. If we had 20-year-old kidneys to spare, this wouldn’t be a big problem. But we don’t have 20-year-old kidneys to spare, so we also give 20-year-old patients 60-year-old kidneys which means the kidney is likely to die early, taking the patient along with it. If we want to maximize total life expectancy, younger people should get younger kidneys.
Our national healthcare system needs a ‘step-change’, not incremental change. We are facing a vast and complex problem. Let’s use it as an opportunity; rather than blaming our nation’s health problems solely on corporations, providers, insurers, or the government, let’s also think constructively about individual behavior and incentives.
Why do we stop at a red light? Why do we pay our grocery bill when we check out? Why are we compelled to ‘service’ our car when the red indicator light starts to flash? The simple answer is that if we don’t we know we will incur a penalty. Either we have to pay to get things fixed later, or we pay extra financial fees, or we get nasty looks from our neighbors.
A behavioral sociologist would offer a more complex answer: such contracts form the heart of a civic society. We behave in accordance with laws and a sense of civic duty (we abide traffic signals) because we understand that preserving the community is ultimately self-preserving. We act in ways consistent with financial incentives, or disincentives (we service our cars) because it is immediately self-preserving.Continue reading…
Princeton ethicist Peter Singer’s article in this week’s NY Times Sunday Magazine is creating lots of buzz. It is a classic utilitarian description of the case for rationing – QALYs and all – and a plea for a mature national dialogue about the dreaded R-word.Don’t hold your breath. To understand why, remember the words of Joseph Stalin: “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”
A society of grown-ups would read Singer’s article and say,
“Gosh, he’s absolutely right. If we don’t make some hard choices about whether to cover $50,000 palliative chemotherapy to extend a life of an 80-year-old by a few months, then we are choosing not to have enough money to provide universal health insurance, or to ensure that everybody has their pap smears and generic Lipitor (or, while we’re at it, to house the homeless, provide decent public education, or have viable auto companies).”
Rationing is inevitable – as I recently mentioned, talking about whether we should ration is like talking about whether we should obey the laws of gravity. The only question is how we do it. And what better time than now to have this difficult national conversation, being that we’re in the middle of retooling our entire healthcare economy, the fundamental obstacle is finding the money to pay the bill, and we have a president who truly understands the dilemma and is smart and mature enough to lead the discussion.
Yet rationing remains a political Third Rail, the Lord Voldemort of the healthcare policy debate.
The issue is not new, nor are its political trappings. It’s worth understanding a bit of this history to frame today’s debate – and lack thereof.
In 1984, Colorado Governor Richard Lamm famously opined that the elderly had a “duty to die” in order to free up resources for the young. He was vilified.
In 1987, Oregon stepped into the mess that is healthcare rationing, and spent much of the next decade scraping off its metaphorical shoe. In the face of exploding Medicaid costs, the state legislature decided not to fund transplants (including bone marrow transplants) in order to preserve limited funds to cover other services.
This was in the early years of bone marrow transplant, when BMT had a 50-50 success rate for certain types of childhood leukemias (it’s better now), and cost about $100,000. The state did the math, and found that for the same $100K, several lives could be saved by plowing the money into other healthcare needs, including prenatal care. And so BMT became an uncovered service. A perfectly rational decision if you live in Utilitarian, Most-Good-for-the-Most-People, World.
But that’s not the world we live in.
What happened next was utterly predictable. A 7-year-old boy named Coby Howard developed acute leukemia, Oregon denied his BMT coverage under Medicaid, and his mom went ballistic (any parent, including this one, would have done precisely the same thing). The only question was which megaphone she would grab first to make her case: the media, her local congressman, or a lawyer (ultimately, of course, she used all three). Here’s how it sounded on ABC’s Nightline:
[Ted Koppel] began the program with footage of Coby Howard and said: “When the State of Oregon decided to stop funding organ transplants, it allowed this boy to die.” Koppel later asked: “Is the cost of modern medical technology forcing public officials to play God?”
In the end, Coby received his BMT, paid for by private donations, but sadly died later that year. Under the leadership of state senate president (later governor) John Kitzhaber, a former ER doc, and in the face of withering post-Coby criticism, Oregon developed a more explicit rationing plan – of course, it covered BMT. Kitzhaber and his staff later described the pressures they felt after they took on healthcare rationing,
“Our detractors consist mainly of uninformed members of threatened interest groups who delight in comparing the Oregon plan to a perfect world.”
Stalin could have predicted this, of course. The Oregon rationing plan (both the ad hoc decision to deny BMTs and the more explicit “prioritized list” that followed) depended on a hard-boiled tradeoff between a single identifiable life – in this case, a cute child with a determined mother – and many unidentified lives. We’ll never know which kids were saved by better prenatal care, or whose strokes were averted by primary care and hypertension control. These statistical lives make for a pretty dull interview on Nightline – and they don’t blog.
Where do docs fit into all of this? Our ethical model is to do everything we can for the patient in front of us – we are socialized from the first day of med school to believe that the single death is indeed a tragedy (the late Norman Levinsky made this point in a wonderful piece in the NEJM called “The Doctor’s Master”). Although as responsible citizens, we care about society and the unidentified lives outside our office or our ICU, it is not our job to weigh the impact of our choices on them. And, of course, we won’t be sued by society for plundering its resources, but might well be sued by the family of an individual patient who feels that we didn’t do everything possible to save their loved one.
I just finished a couple of weeks on the wards, and once again cared for several patients – cachectic, bedbound, sometimes stuck on ventilators – in the late stages of severe and unfixable chronic illnesses whose families wanted to “do everything.” As I wrote last year, there are limits (like chest compressions) on what I am willing to do in these circumstances, but they are mostly symbolic – basically, I am a bit player in this crazy house, with no choice but to flog the helpless patient at a cost of $10,000 a day in a system that is nearly broke and whose burn rate threatens to ruin our country. Go figure.
Is there anything we can do? The favored solution, a board resembling the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) with the teeth to limit certain new drugs and technologies, is hard enough. But even if we were able to get a NICE-like organization in place (doubtful), that doesn’t really address the brutally tough issue: is our ethical model one in which we do everything possible, irrespective of cost, for every patient when there is any chance of benefit, or one in which we place limits on what we’ll do in order to do the most good for the most people. An American “NICE” isn’t going to limit ICU care for 80-year-olds with metastatic cancer. That will require a much broader public discussion, and even harder choices – since they will need to be made at the bedside.
As Singer notes, every society that rations provides a safety valve for the wealthy disaffected. In the UK, you can buy private insurance that allows you to jump the queue for your hip replacement. Canada’s safety valve is called the Cleveland Clinic. We don’t talk about the percent of our GNP we are spending on Starbucks lattes, or on iPods, or on vacations. People pay for these things out of pocket, and receive no tax advantages when doing so. Given the American ethos of self-determination and consumerism, any rationing plan will need to allow people who can afford care that isn’t covered by standard insurance to buy it with their own money (with absolutely no tax advantage). Two-tiered medicine, sure, but I see little problem with this as long as we are using the money in the communal pool to provide a reasonable set of benefits to the entire population.
How might a thoughtful structure to support rationing be organized in the U.S.? When considering new technologies and drugs, it will probably entail an independent board empowered to make coverage recommendations based on cost-effectiveness, just as NICE has done in the UK. But just as importantly, at the level of individual hospitals or healthcare organizations, there will need to be committees of providers, administrators, and patient advocates that can set and defend limits on care. Such decisions would not automatically mean that grandpa can’t stay on the ventilator, but would mean that ongoing care would no longer be fully covered by insurance. Of course, these decisions would have to be all-but-immune from litigation threat.
Will this happen? Probably not. Twenty years ago, the great Princeton healthcare economist Uwe Reinhardt observed that there are two kinds of rationing: “civics lesson rationing” and “muddling through elegantly.” In the former, a NICE-like federal board, or local panels such as the one I’ve described above, weighs the evidence and makes these tough rationing decisions algorithmically and prospectively. The muddling through option, which Reinhardt felt was far more likely, involves limiting the resources available – the number of ICU beds, or MRI scanners, or CT surgeons – and allowing docs, patients and administrators to duke it out at the bedside. The evidence is that they do a decent job at triaging to provide the most good for the most people.
Of course, these limits are naturally present when resources are truly scarce – like livers for transplantation – and in these circumstances we have developed thoughtful rationing approaches. The point is that health care dollars increasingly resemble livers.
I’m pleased Peter Singer and others have dared to speak of the R-word in public, because it is so central to today’s healthcare policy debate. But will the society that brings you Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck (or, I’m beginning to think, some of our Democratic representatives) deal with it in an effective, mature way? I truly doubt it.