Sunday, April 04, 2010

Take two aspirin and call Obama in the morning

My recent post celebrating the passage of health insurance reform led to an interesting debate in the comments section. There are sincere people on both sides who put forth arguments of merit. At the risk of causing more headaches for myself and others, I want to address some of the points made.

First, this new law is about as conservative as a liberal reform can be. There is no public option. The bill was supported by Big Pharma, with which the White House cut a deal early on. While these factors may be mightily annoying to some people on the left, they also mean that the worst fears of those on the right are unlikely to be realized. Decisions about what care you can have will still be made by corporate bureaucrats –- as opposed to government bureaucrats –- although the reforms do provide some better consumer protections, such as changes to the appeals process. Drug companies will still be able to charge American customers an arm and a leg and a spleen, which means they will still have money and incentive to develop new therapies for CLL and other diseases. There will be no government-mandated NICE program, like they have in the U.K.

The concerned physician wrote in his comment that "Healthcare providers will either grow wealthier, or they will leave the system, further diminishing availability of care." I am guessing that with a new group of 32 million captive customers, health insurance companies won't suffer. They have enough money to hire attorneys to exploit loopholes or gray areas in the law, which has already begun, as the recent flap over whether they can weasel out of covering children with preexisting conditions demonstrates. There are lots of ways for health insurers to game the new system, just as they have gamed the old.

On another point I made, the doctor wrote: "I hope that you really don't believe that many people died for lack of coverage. As a physician I categorically assure you that that has not been the case."

Alas, there is plenty of evidence that more than a few people have suffered fatal consequences from lack of insurance. Last fall, researchers reported in the American Journal of Public Health that an estimated 45,000 deaths per year in the United States are associated with the lack of health insurance. A 2007 study from The American Cancer Society found that uninsured cancer patients are 1.6 times more likely to die within five years of their diagnosis than those with private insurance.

The bottom line, as I see it, is that the current system is unfair (take refusal to cover preexisting conditions as an example) and unworkable for too many people (the estimated 45 million Americans who have no insurance, those even with insurance who face bankruptcy if they become seriously ill, those with chronic diseases -- hint, hint -- who face dollar caps on coverage, those whose insurance can be lost at any minute due to the capricious whims of an insurance company).

This reform package is flawed and will no doubt need some corrections as time goes on. There may well have been better ways to go about it. But in correcting some of the worst abuses, it is a step in the right direction. We may have gone from bad to middling, but as we CLLers know from our treatment experience, a partial response is better than none at all.