26
Feb
10

feel good, look good, and live forever!

I spent almost all day yesterday listening to the health care reform summit. It triggered some recdollections.

Years ago — was it 15 or 20? — I attended a couple of conferences at Berkeley about managed care, the solution du jour for relentlessly rising health care expenditures. On one panel was Leonard Schaeffer, former president and CEO of WellPoint. (I emphasize “former” to insulate him from the heat the company has taken recently for double-digit premium increases to some customers.) He mentioned that he was often asked at meetings, “What to people want?” with respect to healthcare. His standard reply was: “They want to feel good, to look good, and to live forever.”

He said this only partly in jest. As the CEO of a major payer company he had seen that there was heavy demand by customers to pay not only for treatments alleviating physical ailments but also for treatment to relieve their distress, to make them look more like they thought they should, and to forestall the ravages of age and the ultimate insult, death. The boundaries of the three categories were so ill-defined that it was possible to expand what people wanted reimbursement for indefinitely. This resulted in the administrators dilemma: satisfying the customer’s expectations without utterly exhausting the bank.

Apparently not much has changed. Our expectations for medical relief remain largely unbounded. Perhaps it’s because after WWII we came to expect medical miracles: antibiotics that knocked down infections, vaccines that eliminated polio and communicable diseases, surgery that seemingly made anything possible. I recall watching open heart surgery on fuzzy black and white nationwide TV broadcasts because it was such an astonishing development. After that we sent men to the moon.

When I went to work in the cancer field we had an organizational slogan: “We want to wipe out cancer in your lifetime.” “Wipe out” as in totally eradicate. Seriously! It wasn’t a disingenuous promise; it only reflected the limits of what we knew about the complexity of the disease at the time. People in the cancer field had to let that notion go by the wayside as we began to see that terms like “cure” and “eliminate” were perhaps over-statements when dealing with a disease that stemmed from malfunctions of the most basic biological processes of living things.

The aim of much of the cancer community today is to shift more cancer cases into chronic conditions (as opposed to acute, lethal episodes). Well, that’s progress and perhaps an inevitable step in greater mastery of the disease; but one of the most serious problems we have in health care today is the rising cost of chronic diseases. A study published in Health Affairs a week ago indicated that half of the increase in Medicare spending 1997-2006 was due to increases in prevalence of cases of 10 diseases or to increased cost of treating cases. Cancer isn’t even in the top 5 of the chronic disease list…yet.  One of the biggest surprises of my career was that the financial barriers to state-of-the-art treatment would become a challenge nearly as serious as the intricacy of the disease itself.

We have a difficult time in America discussing pragmatic matters like to cost of protracted care in the same conversation with the good of “saving lives.” Extending life is taken as an unalloyed good. You can become a pariah for mixing the two (i.e., examining comparative effectiveness becomes “death panels” or “pulling the plug on grandma”). I don’t know how many times over the years I’ve listened to well-meaning people advocate efforts requiring a lot of resources with the argument that, “If we can save just one life it will be worth it.” Have I just become too callous when I react: “Uhm…maybe some good can be  done putting the resources elsewhere”? In my entire 40 years in public health I never heard a serious discussion about the unintended or down-side effects of doing whatever it takes to retard illness.

But it’s not a discussion that can be avoided much longer. During the health care debate yesterday everybody seemed to agree on a couple of things: 1) we needed reform for humanitarian reasons, and 2) the continued relentless rise in costs will bankrupt us. One of the Republican senators said something like (I’m paraphrasing), “In a perfect world we’d want everybody to have everything, but we can’t afford this.” I’m a lifelong, unrepentant liberal, but I thought that was a pretty straight statement, one that resonated with me. The truth of  that specific assertion can be argued either way, but it is a matter we have to address. It’s bigger than just the price of the the current health fix. We need to have some frank talk about allocating our less than infinite resources for many benefits that might be achieved. I’m hoping that the baby boomers — of which I’m one — currently heading into the nexus of this issue can bring forth some of the brashness with which we’ve talked about many things in our time (drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll, etc.) and break down the taboo about discussing the realities of life, death, and the price of peanuts.

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