STATEMENT BY BURKE J. BALCH, J.D.
DIRECTOR, ROBERT POWELL CENTER FOR MEDICAL ETHICS
National Right to Life Committee Press Conference
Zenger Room, National Press Building, Washington, D.C.
January 21, 2010
Since its inception, the pro-life movement has been just as concerned with protecting the lives of people with disabilities and older people from euthanasia as it has been with protecting unborn children from abortion, and we have regarded government-imposed rationing of lifesaving medical treatment, food and fluids as an unacceptable form of involuntary euthanasia.
Therefore, the pro-life movement has grave concerns about rationing elements in the pending health care legislation. This morning’s Washington Post quotes Harvard health policy professor Robert Blendon as saying that what Massachusetts voters heard was now Senator-elect Scott Brown’s message that the national health care bills would require Medicare cuts. Indeed, a great deal of the backlash, not just in Massachusetts but also nationally, comes from those with insurance realizing that their health care will be endangered if the proposed legislation is enacted.
That legislation is based upon a widely held but fundamentally fallacious assumption – that it is necessary to "bend the cost curve" of health care spending because America cannot afford to continue to increase health care spending in the future as it has in the past.
As it happens, foremost among the economists who have debunked this fallacy is the Obama Administration’s nominee for Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation in the Department of Health and Human Services, Columbia University health care economist Sherry Glied, in her 1997 book "Chronic Condition: Why Health Reform Fails." The first two of these charts are based on data from that book, updated.
The percent of the average family budget devoted to health care (including what employers pay for employees’ health insurance) has steadily grown from 3% in 1940 to 17% in 2006. This trend, and fear that it will continue unless "the cost curve is bent," lies behind the increasingly widespread view that rationing, however unpalatable, is essential. But as Glied’s book demonstrates, the trend must be seen in context.
During that same period, the percent of the average family budget devoted to food declined from almost 30% to under 15%, because of ever-increasing improvements in agricultural productivity. We can look further at the three essentials of food, clothing, and shelter combined. From 1940 to 2006, the percent of the average family budget devoted to these necessities fell from about 53% to about 33%. Consequently, the percent for health care plus food, clothing, and shelter actually dropped from 56% in 1940 to 50% in 2006. Productivity improvements in such areas as agriculture, transportation, and the assembly of clothing freed up resources enabling Americans, on average, to put significantly more resources into obtaining better health care.
While we are presently coping with severe economic downturn, research by health care economists across the ideological spectrum, from David Cutler to Robert Hall and Charles Jones, shows that there is no reason, so long as productivity growth continues, why we cannot indefinitely continue to increase the proportion of our incomes that is spent to keep us alive and healthy.
The pending health legislation contains numerous mechanisms to hold down the amount of their funds Americans are allowed to use to save their own lives. As documented on our website, both the House and Senate bills would not just limit government health care spending; they would empower bureaucrats to limit what private citizens can spend to get unrationed health insurance. Senior citizens, faced with massive Medicare cuts, could be prevented by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services from exercising the choice current law allows them to add their own money on top of the diminishing government Medicare contribution in order to get Medicare Advantage private fee-for-service plans less likely to deny treatments and diagnostic tests. Those participating in the health insurance exchanges could see their insurance choices limited to those plans most likely to deny care if government bureaucrats exclude plans less likely to ration care on the claim that they cost too much.
Under the Senate bill, an almost omnipotent commission would be directed not only to hold Medicare increases below the rate of medical inflation, but also to recommend to the HHS Secretary measures to keep increases private health care spending below medical inflation as well. The HHS Secretary would be empowered to impose so-called "quality" and "efficiency" standards on ALL health care providers governing the health care they provide not only under government programs but also under private insurance.
We don’t need this U.K.-style rationing, and the National Right to Life Committee will be working to prevent or repeal it. Last night, in an interview with George Stephanopoulos, the President suggested the possibility of a stripped-down bill, but one of the three items he mentioned as being in such a bill was "cost-containment." We will be carefully watching any such stripped-down measure to determine whether it includes provisions that, like the pending bills, would ration health care, and will be quick to publicize and oppose them.
 David M Cutler, Your Money or Your Life: Strong Medicine for America's Healthcare System (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).