Equity And The Economics Of Health

Why We Must Ration Health Care
Peter Singer, NY Times, July 15, 2009

I was first introduced to Peter Singer when I read his thought-provoking book, Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics.

In this New York Times Magazine essay, Singer persuasively argues that we should make health care decisions based on the economics of treatment. This should be obvious, but many feel that it is immoral to place a dollar value on human life. That absurdity is untenable.

What do you think of formulas that attempt to place a dollar value on an individual? How much are you worth?

We need a health care rationing system that is economical.

The essay should be read in its entirety. Here are a few of my favorite excerpts.

Remember the joke about the man who asks a woman if she would have sex with him for a million dollars? She reflects for a few moments and then answers that she would. “So,” he says, “would you have sex with me for $50?” Indignantly, she exclaims, “What kind of a woman do you think I am?” He replies: “We’ve already established that. Now we’re just haggling about the price.”

Health care is a scarce resource, and all scarce resources are rationed in one way or another. In the United States, most health care is privately financed, and so most rationing is by price: you get what you, or your employer, can afford to insure you for.

Rationing health care means getting value for the billions we are spending by setting limits on which treatments should be paid for from the public purse. If we ration we won’t be writing blank checks to pharmaceutical companies for their patented drugs, nor paying for whatever procedures doctors choose to recommend. When public funds subsidize health care or provide it directly, it is crazy not to try to get value for money. The debate over health care reform in the United States should start from the premise that some form of health care rationing is both inescapable and desirable. Then we can ask, What is the best way to do it?

There’s no doubt that it’s tough — politically, emotionally and ethically — to make a decision that means that someone will die sooner than they would have if the decision had gone the other way.

If the U.S. system spent less on expensive treatments for those who, with or without the drugs, have at most a few months to live, it would be better able to save the lives of more people who, if they get the treatment they need, might live for several decades.

When a Washington Post journalist asked Daniel Zemel, a Washington rabbi, what he thought about federal agencies putting a dollar value on human life, the rabbi cited a Jewish teaching explaining that if you put one human life on one side of a scale, and you put the rest of the world on the other side, the scale is balanced equally. Perhaps that is how those who resist health care rationing think. But we already put a dollar value on human life.

Governments implicitly place a dollar value on a human life when they decide how much is to be spent on health care programs and how much on other public goods that are not directed toward saving lives. The task of health care bureaucrats is then to get the best value for the resources they have been allocated. It is the familiar comparative exercise of getting the most bang for your buck. Sometimes that can be relatively easy to decide. If two drugs offer the same benefits and have similar risks of side effects, but one is much more expensive than the other, only the cheaper one should be provided by the public health care program.

As a first take, we might say that the good achieved by health care is the number of lives saved. But that is too crude. The death of a teenager is a greater tragedy than the death of an 85-year-old, and this should be reflected in our priorities. We can accommodate that difference by calculating the number of life-years saved, rather than simply the number of lives saved.

We should also set a low priority on the very young.

The QALY has been used by economists working in health care for more than 30 years to compare the cost-effectiveness of a wide variety of medical procedures and, in some countries, as part of the process of deciding which medical treatments will be paid for with public money. If a reformed U.S. health care system explicitly accepted rationing, as I have argued it should, QALYs could play a similar role in the U.S.

This method of preserving our belief that everyone has an equal right to life is, however, a double-edged sword. If life with quadriplegia is as good as life without it, there is no health benefit to be gained by curing it.

The QALY is not a perfect measure of the good obtained by health care, but its defenders can support it in the same way that Winston Churchill defended democracy as a form of government: it is the worst method of allocating health care, except for all the others. If it isn’t possible to provide everyone with all beneficial treatments, what better way do we have of deciding what treatments people should get than by comparing the QALYs gained with the expense of the treatments?

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