When will we ever be free of the dreaded “R” word in health care? Will we ever accept that we can’t have our cake and eat it too? I’ve written about rationing many times before. Today, I want to share with you the words of Dr. Don Berwick, outgoing director of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. In a speech at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement National Forum on December 7, 2011, Dr. Berwick had this to say:
“Inscribed on the wall of the great hall at the entrance to the Hubert Humphrey Building, the HHS Headquarters in Washington where my office was, is a quotation from Senator Humphrey at the building’s dedication ceremony on November 4, 1977. It says: ‘The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.’
I believe that. Indeed, I think that Senator Humphrey described the moral test, not just of government, but of a nation. This is a time of great strain in America; uncertainty abounds. With uncertainty comes fear, and with fear comes withdrawal. We can climb into our bunkers, each separately, and bar the door. But, remember, millions of Americans don’t have a bunker to climb into–they have no place to hide. For many of them, indeed, the crisis of economic security that we all dread now is no crisis at all–it is their status quo. The Great Recession is just their normal life….
Cynicism diverts energy from the great moral test. It toys with deception, and deception destroys….If you really want to talk about ‘death panels,’ let’s think about what happens if we cut back programs of needed, life-saving care for Medicaid beneficiaries and other poor people in America. What happens in a nation willing to say to a senior citizen of marginal income, ‘I am sorry you cannot afford your medicines, but you are on your own?’ What happens if we choose to defund our nation’s investments in preventive medicine and community health, condemning a generation to avoidable risks and unseen toxins? Maybe a real death panel is a group of people who tell health care insurers that it is OK to take insurance away from people because they are sick or are at risk for becoming sick….
And, while we are at it, what about ‘rationing?’ The distorted and demagogic use of that term is another travesty in our public debate….The true rationers are those who impede improvement, who stand in the way of change, and who thereby force choices that we can avoid through better care. It boggles my mind that the same people who cry ‘foul’ about rationing an instant later argue to reduce health care benefits for the needy, to defund crucial programs of care and prevention, and to shift thousands of dollars of annual costs to people–elders, the poor, the disabled–who are least able to bear them. When the 17 million American children who live in poverty cannot get the immunizations and blood tests they need, that is rationing. When disabled Americans lack the help to keep them out of institutions and in their homes and living independently, that is rationing. When tens of thousands of Medicaid beneficiaries are thrown out of coverage, and when millions of seniors are threatened with the withdrawal of preventive care or cannot afford their medications, and when every single one of us lives under the Sword of Damocles that, if we get sick, we lose health insurance, that is rationing. And it is beneath us as a great nation to allow that to happen.”
Why don’t you ponder that over the next few days, and have a Merry Christmas!