Saturday, August 8, 2009

Healthcare Reform & End-of-life Costs

When President Obama's chief budget deputy Peter Orzag announced the stimulus bill (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009), he mentioned that the U.S. spends $700 billion each year on medical tests that don't help patients get healthier.

Policy analysts have long known that much of this seemingly wasteful spending occurs during emotionally challenging moments at the end of life. We often are willing to spend the most on those who are the sickest--even when it is unlikely to make them better. Given the highly sensitive situations involved, most politicians have been reluctant to touch this issue with a ten foot poll.

At least until now.

The recent healthcare bill drafted by the House takes on the costs of end-of-life care heads-on by providing doctors with financial incentives to counsel patients on creating "advanced directives" (commonly known as "Do Not Rescusitate/Do Not Intubate" orders). Since many patients can be sustained indefinitely on ICU life-support, the bill is meant to save money by reducing so-called "futile care".

However, the normally sympathetic editorial staff of the Washington Post has taken issue with this aspect of the bill, on the grounds that it is unethical to put financial rewards and end-of-life counseling in such close proximity. What do you think?