Confronting the "R-word"

By Megan McArdle

One way or another, we are going to ration care, if you use "ration" to mean "allocate inherently scarce goods".  But neither side of the health care debate likes to talk about this.  They prefer to minimize the problem--the opponents by saying "they can go to the emergency room!", the proponents by discussing all the speculative ways that we might be able to save money by cutting treatments that don't do any good, or the infamous "waste, fraud, and abuse" that politicians always promise they are going to use to save money.  Somehow, that money never makes its way to the budget's bottom line in any significant amount.  And reading about how salt guidelines came to be, or any of the various histories of bygone treatments from lobotomies to prophylactic tonsillectomies, illustrates how dramatically the establishment of real-world treatment guidelines can diverge from the sober, white-coated Solons of the technocratic ideal.

Over at First Things, Eric Chevlen, an oncologist, has a thoughtful piece on how we should think about rationing:

Limiting health care's availability by the criterion of personal wealth rightly offends our sense of the dignity of the individual. Are the lives of the poor not of the same intrinsic value of those of the wealthy? To be fair, it is rare in the United States that poverty alone prevents the uninsured poor from receiving lifesaving intervention in a healthcare crisis. A poor man having a heart attack is not turned away from the emergency room, nor is the poor woman in labor sent away to have her baby at home. (I am not arguing that such enormities never occur, but the fact that such occurrences remain scandalous and newsworthy is a testament to their rarity.) Yet it is equally undeniable that the poor get a lesser share of the preventive care that can maintain health or of the quotidian care for the less dramatic challenges to their health.

There are two major alternatives to the allocating of health care on the basis of personal wealth. Both involve a large number of individuals agreeing (or having imposed on them) that the amount of health care they receive will not be in strict accord to how much they have paid for it. The cost will be distributed over the healthy as well as the sick, even though the benefit will inure only to those who are ill or who need health care to prevent illness. People accept the certainty of a bearable cost to avoid the risk of an unbearable one. But to the extent that these collective programs sever the connection between paying for health care and receiving it, they generate increased demand for health care. The individual feels that he has already paid for health care. When he is sick, or thinks that he is sick, he feels fully entitled to care with no consideration of cost. After all, he has already paid for it, hasn't he? Given the limited amount of health care that may be bought with the aggregate funds of the group, this untrammeled demand for it must always result in rationing. This is true whether the collective effort is a private insurance plan or a government program. Rationing is inevitable in all collective health care financing schemes.

Rationing must occur, but it need not be admitted. Denying the truth of rationing is more common in government-run health care schemes than private ones, because the government is reluctant to have the people know this ugly fact. Government-run programs, therefore, are more likely to disguise the rationing. This plausibly deniable form of limiting health care is called implicit healthcare rationing, and it assumes many forms. Rationing by termination occurs when patients are discharged from the hospital earlier than is medically optimal. Rationing by dilution occurs when second-best rather than first-best treatment is provided. Rationing by rejection or redirection involves healthcare providers turning away patients whose care will be inadequately reimbursed. This is commonly seen now in the Medicare and Medicaid programs, because those programs reimburse providers at a rate substantially lower than private insurance plans. Perhaps more common than those forms of rationing is rationing by delay, as exemplified by the outrageous amount of time patients in Canada must wait for hip replacement surgery or colonoscopy. The unifying theme in all these forms of implicit rationing is that, without admitting it, they force some patients to forego medical care that they want and are ostensibly entitled to receive.

Private insurance plans sometimes include an element of implicit rationing, but because they are, at heart, contractual agreements between the insurance company and the insured are more likely to ration health care explicitly. The many pages of the healthcare plan describe what is a covered service, which providers will be reimbursed for services, the duration of coverage, the dollar limit, and so on. The advantage of explicit over implicit rationing is obvious: It gives potential customers of the insurance plan information to use when deciding which insurance plan to buy, and gives them clear expectations of services to be delivered. Implicit rationing, by contrast, may have the sweetness of a promise, but is usually succeeded by the bitterness of a promise broken.

All modern societies ration health care. A wise society considers the options and chooses a method of doing so which best conforms to its values and capabilities. Thus we come to the terrible question we would so very much like to avoid: How shall we ration health care? How shall we explicitly ration it? So noxious a question is this, so offensive in its tacit assumptions and implications, that most politicians and wishful thinkers will deny that we need to address it at all. They will argue that the fundamental problem is one of distribution, not one of unmeetable demand. They will argue, with more enthusiasm than evidence, that an emphasis on preventive care would substantially reduce aggregate demand. Some will say we must reduce the role of government; others will argue that we should augment it. If only we will adopt their plan--they'll say--waste, fraud, and abuse will be abolished. There will be chicken--or at least chicken soup--in every pot, and a vaccine in every arm. People love honesty, but they hate the truth. To frankly acknowledge and address the ineluctable reality of healthcare rationing is not merely to touch the proverbial third rail of American politics; it is to lie across the tracks in front of the onrushing train.

Come, let us speak of unpleasant things. How is health care to be rationed? Who gets the short end of the stick?

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2009/08/confronting-the-r-word/24049/