Rationing

RATIONING…. Charles Krauthammer warns that rationing will be inevitable if health care reform passes. Ezra Klein explains that it’s too late.

It is not a difference of opinion, or a conversation about semantics. We ration. We ration without discussion, remorse or concern. We ration health care the way we ration other goods: We make it too expensive for everyone to afford. […]

Twenty-seven percent of Canadians wait more than four months for treatment, versus only four percent of Americans. Twenty-four percent of Americans can’t afford medical care at all, versus only 6 percent of Canadians. And the American numbers are understated because if you can’t afford your first appointment, you never learn you couldn’t afford the medicine or test that the doctor would have prescribed.

We ration. And if the numbers and the surveys don’t convince you of the point, this is what it looks like when we ration.

Perhaps the best I’ve seen on the subject came from the NYT‘s David Leonhardt in June, who explained that “the case against rationing isn’t really a substantive argument. It’s a clever set of buzzwords that tries to hide the fact that societies must make choices.”

In truth, rationing is an inescapable part of economic life. It is the process of allocating scarce resources. Even in the United States, the richest society in human history, we are constantly rationing. We ration spots in good public high schools. We ration lakefront homes. We ration the best cuts of steak and wild-caught salmon.

Health care, I realize, seems as if it should be different. But it isn’t. Already, we cannot afford every form of medical care that we might like. So we ration.

We spend billions of dollars on operations, tests and drugs that haven’t been proved to make people healthier. Yet we have not spent the money to install computerized medical records — and we suffer more medical errors than many other countries.

We underpay primary care doctors, relative to specialists, and they keep us stewing in waiting rooms while they try to see as many patients as possible. We don’t reimburse different specialists for time spent collaborating with one another, and many hard-to-diagnose conditions go untreated. We don’t pay nurses to counsel people on how to improve their diets or remember to take their pills, and manageable cases of diabetes and heart disease become fatal. […]

The choice isn’t between rationing and not rationing. It’s between rationing well and rationing badly. Given that the United States devotes far more of its economy to health care than other rich countries, and gets worse results by many measures, it’s hard to argue that we are now rationing very rationally.

It’s a subject the country ought to be able to look at intelligently. It’s not. We’re stuck having a debate with the public discourse we have, not the public discourse we might want or wish to have at a later time.