What the Health Care Debate Didn’t Debate

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If you were hoping that a 90-minute debate about the health care system would shed some light on what the Federal government could/should/shouldn’t address, going forward, you were in for serious disappointment.

On Feb. 7, CNN aired that debate between Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Ted Cruz. It really wasn’t about health care, as much as it was about health insurance. More specifically, it rehashed many of the tired and largely superficial arguments — on both sides — that we’d heard about Obamacare during the 2016 campaign. The one issue Sens. Sanders and Cruz seemed to agree about was that drug costs are too high.

If you don’t want to watch the debate for yourself on demand, or read the full transcript (although I’d recommend it), I will sum it up for you: Sen. Sanders believes that health care is a right; that we pay more for health care in the U.S. than other countries and get far less; that drug company executives earn obscenely high salaries; and that there should be Medicare for all. Sen. Cruz believes that government should not be in control of our health care, that it should not get between us and our doctors; that we shouldn’t have rationing the way they do in Europe and Canada; that people should be able to buy health insurance across state lines; and that competition will solve our problems.

What they didn’t talk about were some of the fundamental reasons why our health care system is so stressed. Just a few in the realm of elder care: the cost of treatment and caring for people with multiple chronic conditions; the high cost (and reasons behind) hospital readmissions; the challenge of improving care for people in rural areas; the coming wave of aging baby boomers in need of care; the challenge of providing care for people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias; the high cost of surgeries and other treatments for the ill in their last two years of life; the cascade of issues for those in intensive care units (ICUs) through the end of life.

Nor did they discuss the possible consequences of doing away with some of the more promising demonstration projects by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS)’ Innovation Center  – authorized by the Affordable Care Act – designed to improve the quality of health care (and containing costs). The two I’d keep an eye on: Independence at Home; and Care Choices.

The CNN  debate featured a number of real people from various parts of the country and  various walks of life, with pressing health care dilemmas and questions for the Senators. You may not be surprised to learn that neither Senator answered those questions directly, but rather treated them as jumping-off points to return to their main messages.

One particular exchange that was disheartening to me (and it was not the focus of a broader discussion, by any means), happened about one-third of the way into the debate. In his advocating against rationing and in favor of people “exercising free choice,” Sen. Cruz had this to say:

“We could cut costs here if we do like Europe and cut the number of MRIs, the number of mammograms. If we cut — you know, you look at the elderly in much of Europe. The elderly here, when the elderly face life-threatening diseases, they’re often treated in the intensive care unit. In Europe, they’re often put in palliative care, essentially doped up with some drugs, and said, ‘Well, now is your time to go.’”

(To which Sen. Sanders’ response, in total, was “Oh.”)

Let’s take Sen. Cruz’ colossal misunderstanding, or mischaracterizing, of what palliative care is all about. First, it is all about patient-centered care. That is, it’s about figuring out what’s important to a patient facing serious illness – in simple terms, what does a good day look like to that person? — and helping him or her achieve it. Second, it does that through symptom management, which means alleviating pain, be it physical, emotional or spiritual. Third, it does not interfere with curative treatment the patient might be receiving from other physicians. Fourth, it is appropriate for anyone, of any age, struggling with a serious illness, not necessarily one that is life-limiting.

But what about his statement about the intensive care unit? He seemed to be saying that this is a beneficial thing for the elderly facing life-threatening diseases. The reality is that for a frail elder at the close of life, an ICU stay can seem more like an assault than a medical miracle. (If our lawmakers doubt that, I’d advise that they watch the short documentary film Extremis.

We may not see much clarity about health care emanating from Washington any time soon. Now that we have a new head of Health and Human Services, will that hasten Obamacare being replaced? Will it be replaced or repaired this year or next year? In what form? Who knows? If this debate was any indication, it doesn’t seem likely that the quality of the discussion about it is going to be terribly enlightening.

 

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