Monday, July 27, 2009
Rationing. There. I Said It.
Thirty percent of Medicare money, it's said, is spent in the last month (or is it six months?) of recipients' life. It shouldn't be surprising: people who die are generally sick. Sick people -- especially ones that die -- require more care than healthy people, or people who survive an illness. But it gets to the most thorny of issues when tackling health care costs. And it's a perfect example of why real reform is next to impossible: our politicians are too venal and stupid, special interests are too powerful, media are too superficial, the issue it too freighted with grayness, and the public is too easily distracted for there to be a meaningful discussion.
Notwithstanding the truths just enunciated, I have a few things to say. A proposal, too.
Absent having all the money in the world to spend on health care, I think it's fair to say that everyone is in favor of rationing. If all we had was a million bucks, would anyone choose to spend it on ten demented ninety year olds with advanced cancer and a 5% chance of recovery, instead of ten ten year olds with leukemia, with an 80% chance of recovery? So, like the old joke, we're not really arguing about rationing; we're haggling over details. Not to mention the fact that rationing, so loudly decried by the Foxoid among us as possible under "Obamacare" (whatever that is) is already happening with private insurance: of the dozens of plans offered by each of the twelve hundred insurers, how many cover all things for all people with all conditions under all circumstances? How many people get dropped after an illness, or refused in the first place? Wouldn't it be better to have such decisions made in a system open to public and medical input? (Along those lines, here's a pretty good, and humorous, commentary on the reality we currently face, still defended most arduously by the nay-sayers of the right-wing persuasion.)
End of life care presents us with some of the most difficult decisions we make, as families, as patients, as physicians. Likewise the related situation of "futile care." In neither case are there clear criteria to guide us. The exact same operation -- say, bowel resection for perforation -- would certainly be futile in that ninety year old (let's add some heart and kidney disease to make it easier), and entirely reasonable in a thirty year old, even if that person presented in septic shock. In the latter case I wouldn't hesitate for a second. In the former, I would try (and have, many times) to present for consideration the option of providing comfort care only. I won't psychoanalyze myself, but I hated doing operations wherein I felt there was virtually no hope of survival. (Need I mention that I made more money when I did operate than when I didn't? Yet I tried like hell not to, by presenting as candidly and openly as possible what I thought the situation was.) Not every surgeon would have done so.
I was always scrupulous about cost in my practice, from the little things to the big ones. Saving a few bucks on every case by not demanding different suture for every step when it made no difference: it adds up. So does thinking twice before heading down the road to futility. But it's neither universal, nor easy to know the signposts. Ought there to be some guidelines at the end of life, or should it be up to serendipity? I don't want to take judgment out of the equation; but not everyone has the same capacity for it. Which is part of the problem.
I can't back this up with any data, but when their grandma was dying, it seemed to be those who'd been with her the most who were the most able to let go. It was the out-of-town shirt-tail relative who blew in at the last minute who seemed to demand that "everything" be done. In those circumstances when it was insisted I go for the one/million shot, I've wondered if the same decision would be made were the family responsible for the cost.
So here's my proposal, in the context of the brouhaha over the idea of studying what works, and not paying for what doesn't: let's lay the money on the table. If a family wants to go ahead with an operation or other intervention, for which the odds of success are very long, or which is judged ineffective based on research (let's not get into details for now), here's the deal: if it works, Medicare (or is it Obamacare?) pays. If it fails, the family pays. Cash (credit card?) up front. Takers?
I see this health care "debate" as the quintessential test of our democracy. The need for reform is clear; the trajectory is, without doubt, toward disaster if changes aren't made. And yet, here we are, bogged down in disingenuous rhetoric, in overt efforts to stop it for purely political reasons. Trading amendments and concessions to various profiteers like bubble gum cards. Watering down the most serious proposals like potted plants. Media covering it lazily (all of them), sensationally (most of them), or entirely falsely and politically (you know who.) Advertisements and talking points designed to frighten, inflame, misinform. Citizens unwilling to think about it carefully. Faced with a crying need and a failed future that is not seriously in doubt, we seem unable to have serious debate, to argue on the merits, to legislate the sorts of changes that are needed. How can other countries have done it, and not us? And what does it say about our political system?
Can a nation of half-educated people, unable or unwilling critically to evaluate data; a media industry degenerated into selling soap over meaningful reporting -- and, worse, owned, operated, and scripted by people with overt political agendas; legislators elected for their dogmatism above all, the less serious the better; political parties more interested in power games than doing right -- can such a political system meet real and serious and undeniably needed challenges, or not? We'll know pretty soon. In fact, I'd say we already do.