Some Philadelphia physicians are contributors to current national debates on the financing of medical care.
Insurance in Philadelphia
Early Philadelphia took a lead in insurance innovation. Some ideas, like life insurance, flourished. Others have faded.
An article in the Wall Street Journal Amy Finkelstein of MIT describes evidence that Medicare seemingly produced no provable increase in longevity during the period she studied, which was 1965 to 1975. Thinking back to that time in the practice of Medicine, the conclusion while surprising seems entirely plausible after a little reflection. Our system of charity care was good enough so I really doubt if very many people were allowed to die prematurely because of poverty in 1965, at least in Philadelphia. Charity took care of them. Elective repairs were an entirely different matter, however. Working in charity clinics at the time, I well remember that almost every patient seemed to have bad teeth, an unrepaired hernia, untreated varicose veins, or a positive Wasserman and similar threatening but non-fatal conditions. There existed a vast backlog of untreated non-fatal conditions, almost to the point where it seemed we would never catch up, but of course, we did eventually catch up. Whatever the costs of the government health programs during that decade, they mainly reflect that huge backlog project of correcting health impairments which were nevertheless not an immediate threat to life, in addition to lifting the former financial burden from our charity institutions of treating conditions which were undeniably life-threatening.
From this historical experience it can be deduced that any new proposals for modifying or reforming the medical system should start with the medical situation as we happen to find it. If a great many people are dying of treatable conditions as they are in Asia and Africa today, then it is likely that extra finance will promptly reflect itself as improved population longevity. If that's not the case and other institutions are providing emergency care, you must then look among the backlogs of untreated conditions -- in that locality -- for a justification of new costs and disruption. Since even the non-urgent backlog in America has now been almost totally eliminated, something else must be proposed as a goal for legitimate improvement. Otherwise, you would have to be so far-sighted that you make a decision to spend an extra 10% or so of the Gross Domestic Product for benefits, every year for ten years until some unpredictable long-term benefits appear. It's difficult to imagine our political process launching forth on such an adventure.
However, let's continue to look at what did happen, to see what arguments we might have been imaginative enough to adopt. First of all, we can see that the quality of life of the elderly generation, the one I now belong to, has been enormously enhanced by joint replacement and cataract repair --significantly reducing wheelchair crippling and blindness. Neither of these benefactions can be said to result from a brilliant insight by a genius, but rather a slow, incremental process of adding small enhancements until the desirable result becomes standard practice. This sort of development, as in research and development, is very likely a response to a general increase in the funding of the provider community, as contrasted with targetted extra appropriations to the NIH for example. A plausible case can be made for asserting that the undesignated increased funding of the early Medicare program gave tens of thousands of elderly people -- in the next generation -- a comfortable life rather than a miserable one, several decades sooner than a more frugal medical system would have done.
Secondly, life expectancy did finally increase substantially, perhaps extending an average of ten or more years of life in the period subsequent to the enactment of the Medicare Act. But it did so only after a fifteen or twenty-year lag. It's uncertain how much we may credit Medicare with this benefit, however; the increased basic research funding of the National Institutes of Health seems plausibly responsible. However, at least half of the longevity benefit must be credited to research efforts in the private pharmaceutical industry, which was funded in large measure by Medicare dollars, recirculated through drug purchases. But there's restrained exuberance about even these miracles, which were surely the greatest medical advances in human history.
We have greatly extended the comfortable, useful life of our population, but now must grudgingly admit we directed these benefits to a group of people who are no longer engaged in economic activity. Unemployable people have been transformed into employable ones, but sadly we have mainly given a twenty-year vacation to people who are capable of doing productive work, but don't. Instead, we import millions of foreigners to do the work or outsource it, which accomplishes much the same result without the demographic disruptions. Worse still, we may find these people will often outlive their savings, so the extra longevity could result in years of economic misery and despair, not necessarily an improvement on the physical and medical varieties. In other words, if we had possessed the foresight to see that ultimately improved longevity and life quality was a worthwhile goal, we should then have simultaneously taken the steps to improve economic circumstances which make that medical miracle seem worthwhile.
As we now consider further steps to over fund medical care, or reform it, or make it universal or whatever, perhaps there will be time to consider whether other improvements in American life are needed before there is a net beneficial effect. Either undertaken simultaneously with the health care financing initiatives or even possibly, instead of them.
Originally published: Wednesday, February 28, 2007; most-recently modified: Thursday, May 02, 2019
|Posted by: George Fisher | Jul 26, 2007 12:58 PM|
|Posted by: George 4th | Jul 25, 2007 3:14 PM|