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New York Times: To Fix Health Care Stop Treating People with Disabilities

19health 600 New York Times: To Fix Health Care Stop Treating People with Disabilities photo

NY Times comes out against Disability Rights

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Excerpts From the New York Times Magazine Section (July 15, 2009):

Why We Must Ration Health Care

By Peter Singer, New York Times July 15, 2009

…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?…

…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. If the Department of Transportation, for example, followed rabbinical teachings it would exhaust its entire budget on road safety. Fortunately the department sets a limit on how much it is willing to pay to save one human life. In 2008 that limit was $5.8 million. Other government agencies do the same…

…multiplying what we would pay to reduce the risk of death by the reduction in risk lends an apparent mathematical precision to the outcome of the calculation — the supposed value of a human life — that our intuitive responses to the questions cannot support. Nevertheless this approach to setting a value on a human life is at least closer to what we really believe — and to what we should believe — than dramatic pronouncements about the infinite value of every human life, or the suggestion that we cannot distinguish between the value of a single human life and the value of a million human lives, or even of the rest of the world. Though such feel-good claims may have some symbolic value in particular circumstances, to take them seriously and apply them — for instance, by leaving it to chance whether we save one life or a billion — would be deeply unethical…

…the benefits may vary in ways that defy straightforward comparison. We need a common unit for measuring the goods achieved by health care. Since we are talking about comparing different goods, the choice of unit is not merely a scientific or economic question but an ethical one.

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… It’s easy to say, “What if the teenager is a violent criminal and the 85-year-old is still working productively?” But just as emergency rooms should leave criminal justice to the courts and treat assailants and victims alike, so decisions about the allocation of health care resources should be kept separate from judgments about the moral character or social value of individuals.

…How can we compare saving a person’s life with, say, making it possible for someone who was confined to bed to return to an active life? …One common method is to describe medical conditions to people — let’s say being a quadriplegic — and tell them that they can choose between 10 years in that condition or some smaller number of years without it. If most would prefer, say, 10 years as a quadriplegic to 4 years of nondisabled life, but would choose 6 years of nondisabled life over 10 with quadriplegia, but have difficulty deciding between 5 years of nondisabled life or 10 years with quadriplegia, then they are, in effect, assessing life with quadriplegia as half as good as nondisabled life…restoring to nondisabled life two people who would otherwise be quadriplegics is equivalent in value to saving the life of one person, provided the life expectancies of all involved are similar.

This is the basis of the quality-adjusted life-year, or QALY…

Some will object that this discriminates against people with disabilities. If we return to the hypothetical assumption that a year with quadriplegia is valued at only half as much as a year without it, then a treatment that extends the lives of people without disabilities will be seen as providing twice the value of one that extends, for a similar period, the lives of quadriplegics. That clashes with the idea that all human lives are of equal value. The problem, however, does not lie with the concept of the quality-adjusted life-year, but with the judgment that, if faced with 10 years as a quadriplegic, one would prefer a shorter lifespan without a disability. Disability advocates might argue that such judgments, made by people without disabilities, merely reflect the ignorance and prejudice of people without disabilities when they think about people with disabilities. We should, they will very reasonably say, ask quadriplegics themselves to evaluate life with quadriplegia. If we do that, and we find that quadriplegics would not give up even one year of life as a quadriplegic in order to have their disability cured, then the QALY method does not justify giving preference to procedures that extend the lives of people without disabilities over procedures that extend the lives of people with disabilities.

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. That implication, no doubt, would have been vigorously rejected by someone like Christopher Reeve, who, after being paralyzed in an accident, campaigned for more research into ways of overcoming spinal-cord injuries. Disability advocates, it seems, are forced to choose between insisting that extending their lives is just as important as extending the lives of people without disabilities, and seeking public support for research into a cure for their condition…

…The QALY approach does not even try to measure the benefits that health care brings in addition to the improvement in health itself. Emotionally, we feel that the fact that Jack Rosser is the father of a young child makes a difference to the importance of extending his life, but his parental status is irrelevant to a QALY assessment of the health care gains that Sutent would bring him. Whether decisions about allocating health care resources should take such personal circumstances into account isn’t easy to decide. Not to do so makes the standard inflexible, but taking personal factors into account increases the scope for subjective — and prejudiced — judgments…

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