Sunday, September 13, 2009

The grand illusion.

Most of us have lived through, or will live through, the painful years of watching our parents’ health decline. Behind the ugly partisan rancor of the town halls and the healthcare debates is the simple truth of that common experience.

Whether our parents have cancer or Alzheimer’s or dementia, or are simply dying of old age, we watch as their bodies become frail and their minds fade. These are our parents, once our providers and protectors, sapped of the energy and vitality that we for so long took for granted.

The medical bills. The residential communities. The in-home care. The drugs. They drain our parents’ savings and ultimately strain our family resources. We may have thought that Medicare would suffice, until one day a bill arrives from a rehab facility or a hospital, or a new drug is prescribed. From that day, the emotional pain of end of life care is compounded by the financial strains that bleed outward, undermining sibling comity, and threatening the resources set aside for kids' education, for family vacations, or for retirement.

There is no easy solution to this. We are all living longer, and the advances of technology and science now offer us the ability to fend off diseases that years ago barely existed—largely because we used to die younger and never contracted them. As a close friend put it—a Jesuit priest with a way with words—the longer any machine works, the more the maintenance costs go up.

People like to compare Medicare with Social Security, but the challenges facing Social Security are manageable by comparison. When Franklin Roosevelt created Social Security in 1935, it was a stroke of political—if not financial—genius. Social Security offered retirement security at age 65 to American workers whose average mortality at the time was 59. Therefore, it offered an entitlement to people who—on average—would be dead before they were eligible.

But even with longer lifespans, Social Security is a controllable and predictable program. The mortality curve shifts slowly and we can—at the end of the day—choose to change the parameters of the program that affect cost: the retirement age, the cost of living adjustments, the basis of pay, and the basis of taxation.

Healthcare has no such certainties. Unlike information technology, which offers greater and greater power at less and less cost, investments in healthcare technology and pharmacology that increase longevity and cure rare diseases may be moral victories for humanity but only exacerbate the financial strain on society and families. This is the dilemma of healthcare: The better we get at it, the faster the costs will escalate.

Dr. Andrew Weil, and many others, have pointed out that the solution to our healthcare crisis lies in how we choose to live our lives, and ultimately how we choose to die. In a similar vein, Atul Gawande suggests that the solutions to the cost and quality of healthcare lie in large part in the choices and conduct of the providers themselves. If physicians turn the practice of healthcare into an exercise in profit maximization, they will do better as individuals, but their patients and the system itself will suffer.

But as in most areas of life, good choices and ethical practices cannot be compelled or overseen by government. Regulatory regimes can enforce measurable practices—such as the concentration of melamine in dog food, or rat hairs in cola. But the federal government has no capacity to regulate the quality of collaboration among and conduct of individual medical practitioners.

The person who cried out at one town hall meeting to not let the government get its hands on Medicare has been duly castigated for the irony and ignorance of the remark. But at a deeper level, the remark encapsulates the problem we face.

Medicare is a government program. While many proponents of single payer healthcare point to Medicare as a model, it is a program that pays providers far less than the cost of services, and therefore results in substantial cost-shifting that exacerbates the medical insurance costs paid across the rest of society.

But Medicare is the lifeline of the elderly, and of the families of the elderly. That person may want to believe that Medicare exists above and apart from government, but of course it does not. Each Medicare patient—and their families—are relying on Other People's Money for their care, but they feel entitled to have it with few strings attached nonetheless. But the truth is that it is one more tax-funded program. Just like the stimulus money. Just like the wars. Just like everything else.

Medicare is our cushion. It insulates us from painful decisions that otherwise would be ours. But it is an illusion.

The fear and rage evinced by the person at the town hall presages the pain to come as that illusion is laid bare. If Medicare is Other People’s Money, then those other people are surely entitled to set the rules. But even worse is the realization of what would happen if it were not there. Without Medicare, we would have to be paying those costs for our parents’ end of life care ourselves.

Based on Dartmouth research data, per patient Medicare costs for the last two years of life range from approximately $50,000 to $100,000 across the country. And this is just the part paid by Medicare, which as we all learn is only part of the puzzle. These costs stand in stark contrast to the Federal Reserve data on household finances, that indicate that the median family net worth has fallen from $120,000 in 2007 to $99,000 as of October of last year. It is not a stretch, therefore, to suggest that we are spending with other people's money far more than we could spend if it was our own.

The person who cried out at the town meeting may have been voicing a fear we all hold deep inside. What if it is all an illusion? What if Medicare is not an impenetrable wall that protects us from those decisions that are most painful?

For many years we have accepted the illusion and comfort that Medicare offers. Spending Other People's Money has changed the decisions that we make, and our assumptions and expectations about the care our loved ones receive. We now clamor to rest assured that they will receive all of the care a physician might recommend—with little consideration of the cost to the system of which we are a part.

But federal government resources are no more than the pooling of our collective family resources. In the end, we will return to the questions that for many years we have been able to avoid. How would we choose what steps to take—and what procedures to forego—if it was our limited family resources that would be drained away by each of our decisions? And what choices would our parents make if they understood the magnitude of the impact of each decision on their children and grandchildren?

The question of how we are going to spend scarce resources is with us. We confront it around the kitchen table, and it is time that we accept that it is the central question of healthcare challenge. It is the question that will consume our politics in the years ahead, because the years of free money and free choices have come to an end.

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