Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Introducing the Death Panels

Uwe Reinhardt wrote the following:

The . . . opponents of cost-effectiveness analysis [include] individuals who sincerely believe that health and life are “priceless” — for them, cost should never be allowed to enter clinical decisions. It is an utterly romantic notion and, if I may say so, also an utterly a silly one. No society could ever act consistently on such a credo.

Yes, believe it or not, the James Madison Professor of Political Economy at Princeton University does not believe that human life is infinitely precious. Of course he's going to hell, but what about you? Let me try something out. My colleague Peter Neuman did a survey of oncologists in the U.S. and Canada. He asked them whether they agreed strongly, somewhat, neutral, somewhat disagree, disagree strongly - the usual survey question -- with the following statement:

Everyone deserves access to effective cancer treatments, regardless of the cost.

What's your response? You'll probably be happy to know that most oncologists agree. Then he asked them another question. (I've altered the parameter slightly to get this over with faster.)

Suppose a new treatment for cancer is introduced that costs $200,000. How much added life would it have to offer someone -- let's even say it's you! -- before you would pay for it out of your own pocket? How about if it were paid out of shared social resources? How much extension of life would it have to offer before paying is justified?

One day? One week? One month? Six months? A year? I don't know what your answer is but I'll bet there are very few people who think it's worth spending $200,000 to extend somebody's life by one day. And if you think we are morally compelled to do so, then consider: More than 2 million children die every year from water born diseases; a child dies from pneumonia every 15 seconds; for $250,000, we could save tens of thousands of them.

Why is tobacco legal? Why do people go down into coal mines? Why do we start wars? Every time you get in a car you are proving that the value of life, to you, is finite, because riding in cars is dangerous and lots of people die from it.

The intuition that life is infinitely precious is closely tied to an idea called the Rule of Rescue. Little Timmy fallen down the well is the classic example, but coal miners are a good one also. When miners are trapped under the ground, the coal company and government agencies spare no expense. Drilling equipment is shipped in, high tech seismic equipment, skilled crews work 24 hours, and of course it’s also all the cable news, all the time. If the miners are rescued, the people give thanks to God, although they generally spare him the blame when rescue fails. But the same company has likely been evading safety regulations all along in order to save a few dollars, and the worst that happens to them is a small fine, and there’s little or no public outcry or even any attention paid.

So how we view the preciousness of life depends very much on the obviousness and imminence of death.

The rule of rescue is important to this discussion not only because of the way it affects our allocation of resources, but because it refutes the liberty claim against compulsory insurance. Someone who can afford insurance, but exercises a choice not to buy it, and then is hit by a bus or has a serious illness, will impose a claim on others – family, purchasers of insurance, taxpayers, somebody somehow will pay for their urgent care – and thereby others will be deprived of property and their liberty impaired. No-one can be said to have a right to do that.

Further implications of these observations, which ought to be thought of as very mundane but which are in fact, completely outside the bounds of acceptable political discourse in this country, are to follow.

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