This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series
By Leonard M. Fleck, PhD
Let me start with a clear unequivocal commitment in response to the January Washington Post editorial regarding Medicare for All. From the perspective of what a just and caring society ought to be, “Medicare for All” should be embraced, especially when compared to the costly, fragmented, unjust, inefficient health care financing system we currently have in the United States. For openers, if we abolished private health insurance, we would immediately achieve administrative savings of about $300 billion. We would have the same administrative efficiency as Canada. We would also have a more egalitarian approach for financing and accessing needed health care. What we would NOT have is effective health care cost control. Developing that ability would be ethically, politically, and economically painful.
If we literally mean Medicare for all, recall that substantial co-payments are part of Medicare, which is why a majority of Medicare recipients purchase a private supplementary plan to cover that financial risk. That necessary additive supplement represents a significant compromise of the egalitarian ideal that Medicare is supposed to represent. That represents financial and ethical pain.
The most painful parts of Medicare for All would be three things: (1) the transition itself from employer-funded health care; (2) the scope of the benefit package; and (3) effective cost control. Currently, the federal government covers about $1.5 trillion in health care costs (mostly Medicare, Medicaid and the Veterans Affairs system) out of total health spending in the U.S. in 2017 of $3.5 trillion. Virtually all of that spending would become part of the federal budget. To fund that, the federal government would have to recapture through taxes all that employers (and employees) currently contribute to the cost of their health plan. This would be neither easy nor equitable because of the huge variation from one employer to another, both in scope of coverage and allocation of costs.
Second, what should be the scope of the benefit package? Should it be whatever Medicare covers now, which is reasonably comprehensive? However, many employers offer more comprehensive benefit packages. That would mean employees had to accept a diminished benefit package. Alternatively, the federal government could upgrade Medicare to that optimal level. That would add substantially to that $3.5 trillion in current health spending, and the taxes needed to finance that upgrade. This is political and economic pain. We could permit private insurance upgrades, as in the UK, or forbid such upgrades, as in Canada. Either way, political and ethical pain is the result.
Third, the most painful problem would be controlling health care costs, as the former Princeton economist Uwe Reinhardt has noted with his notion of Great Equations, Cost Control = Income Control or Care Control. Every dollar in health care costs represents someone’s income, and that particular someone does not want to sacrifice their own income for a vague greater good, or someone else’s care. This is the problem of health care rationing.
Political conservatives have denounced health care rationing and contended that “human life is priceless,” (to the benefit of pharmaceutical companies). Liberals have argued that we should not be “throwing granny off a cliff” (when Paul Ryan pushed for privatizing Medicare). In either case, rationing is in fact pervasive in the U.S. health care system. We mostly ration by ability to pay, sometimes in the form of employer-restricted very thin health care coverage or coverage with very high deductibles. We collectively avert our eyes from this private pain.
As I have written extensively, this is essentially invisible health care rationing (Fleck, 71-99). It is widely dispersed among hundreds of thousands of employers. An employer might refuse to cover an extraordinarily expensive (but effective) life-prolonging drug for an employee who dies prematurely because of that denial. The obituary will not list rationing as the cause of death, and the Washington Post will not cover this unjust death.
If Medicare covers everyone, however, then decisions by Medicare not to fund these extraordinarily expensive targeted cancer therapies for patients with metastatic cancer become front-page headlines in the Washington Post and the lead story on Fox News. Pharmaceutical companies become the frontline troops in attacking the bureaucrats for having hearts of stone and consciences of jelly: “Human life is priceless (and pharmaceutical profits too).” In fairness, hospitals, physicians, home health agencies, long-term care facilities and so on will all resist health care cost control. They are all doing good work. Why, they will ask rhetorically, would a just and caring society seek to constrain such good work?
Healthy taxpayers want health care costs controlled; taxpayers with metastatic cancer want access to anything and everything medicine offers that might prolong their life, no matter the cost (because they paid all those taxes) (Eddy). This is irrational (but real). One refrain (seen as politically safe) is to get rid of waste and inefficiency in the health care system. Nothing obviously irrational or unethical about that, except that one person’s waste and inefficiency is another person’s life-prolonging care.
Consider this challenge as part of Medicare for All: CAR T-cell immunotherapy for several refractory leukemias has front-end costs of $475,000, plus several hundred thousand dollars more if a patient experiences a severe form of cytokine release syndrome as a side effect. Roughly, 30% of those patients will fail to survive a year. If we have biomarkers and other medical criteria that can predict with 95% confidence which patients will be in that 30%, would a future possible version of yourself in that 30% group accept a rationing protocol that would deny yourself CAR T-cell therapy because for you it was “wasteful and inefficient”? In theory, 60,000 Americans each year would be candidates for this therapy; potential savings from that protocol would be $15 billion. Alternatively, call a friend with end-stage heart disease and ask if he would be willing to give up his $500,000 artificial heart so you can get CAR T-cell therapy.
If we aspire to be a just and caring society with limited resources (money) to meet unlimited health care needs, then we must have these painful public conversations. Moreover, these conversations must be rational and respectful. Current invisible rationing practices are nothing more than opioids for our consciences.
Leonard M. Fleck, PhD, is Acting Director and Professor in the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences and Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University.
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