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Progressive Healthcare Rationing: What Will It Look Like?

In prior posts, DrRich introduced his readers to Ezekiel Emanuel, M.D., Ph.D., brother of Rahm, eminent medical ethicist, and one of the White House’s chief advisers on healthcare policy. Dr. Emanuel was one of the authors of that recent paper in the Annals of Internal Medicine which admonished American physicians that resistance is futile. He has also famously called upon American physicians to abandon the obsolete medical ethics expressed in the Hippocratic Oath.

The reason the ideas (and pronouncements) of Dr. Emanuel are important is that he presumably will be a major “decider” in determining who will serve on the GOD panels, and how those panels will operate to advance his (and Mr. Obama’s) program of healthcare reform.

So, before we leave Dr. Emanuel to his important duties, let us take one more pass at the views he has expressed, regarding the direction of American healthcare, which we can expect to see manifested in government guidelines and policies in the coming years. In particular, and especially relevant to the subject of this blog, let us view how Dr. Emanuel would direct the rationing of our healthcare.

His ideas in this regard were probably spelled out most clearly in an article Dr. Emanuel co-authored in The Lancet, in January, 2009, which proposed a system of healthcare rationing based on what he and co-authors call the “complete lives system.” Most notably, the complete lives system proposes rationing healthcare on the basis of age, in a way that frankly “discriminates against older people” (The Lancet, Vol 373, p 429).

While Emanuel has taken a lot of heat from the right wing for espousing such a thing, his argument for doing so is unique and thoughtful, and DrRich finds it worthy of more careful consideration.

First, we should note that the outrage we often hear expressed at the very idea of healthcare rationing (with each side accusing the other of wanting to ration) only applies to politicians. When healthcare ethicists get together for instance, they (like DrRich) understand that healthcare rationing is utterly unavoidable, and that in fact we’re already not avoiding it. Ethicists argue, instead, about how to do it. In this way, DrRich feels a certain sense of brotherhood with these ethicists (a group which, in nearly every other way, DrRich most often feels a sense of disgust).

So let us consider the ethical argument most often made for discriminating against the elderly in a system of healthcare rationing. Almost always, the argument is a utilitarian one. Saving the life of a 90-year-old might “buy” him only an extra two or three years of life, whereas spending the same amount of money to save a 10-year-old might buy him another 70 – 80 years of life. So society gains much more if it spends the money on the younger person, and withholds it from the older one. From a utilitarian viewpoint the argument for discriminating against the elderly is unassailable.

Non-utilitarian ethics asserts that all individuals have equal value, so discriminating against any person should be avoided, and therefore the 10-year-old and the 90-year-old should have an equal opportunity to receive the medical service in question. (That is, either both should get it or neither should get it.)

DrRich believes that most people would sympathize with the idea that if only one life can be saved, saving a young person’s life might make more sense than saving a very old person’s life. He thinks that even most 90-year-olds he has known would agree with this proposition. The problem, DrRich believes, is with the rationale we use for making such a decision.

The utilitarian argument for discriminating against the elderly in a rationing system rests on the idea (as does all utilitarian ethical reasoning) that individuals are not of equal value, at least, not from society’s point of view. And since they are not equivalent in value, it is right and proper for some agent of society to determine the relative value of individuals, so that resources can be distributed accordingly.

Obviously, utilitarian ethics opens the door for differentiating the intrinsic values of individuals for reasons other than age. That is, if you can devalue the elderly to optimize the public good, then you can also devalue the disabled, the stupid, the lazy, the left-handed, and the obese (for instance) to optimize public good.

Emanuel’s “complete lives system,” he argues, is NOT a utilitarian one. Emanuel would favor treating the 10-year-old over the 90-year-old not to maximize public good, but to maximize the opportunity of individuals to enjoy “complete lives” over the entire age spectrum. That is, under his system all individuals are taken as having equal intrinsic value. And during the course of their lives, everyone experiences an equal spectrum of priorities – first, the priority of a 10-year-old, and later (if lucky enough to live that long) the priority of a 90-year-old. While in practical terms this still means discriminating against the elderly, it does so in a way that cannot be extended to other groups of people (i.e, the disabled and so forth), and that, in fact, yields equal age-based priorities across individuals through the course of their complete lives. In other words, when one considers the entire course of an individual’s complete life, he or she is treated the same as any other individual during the entire course of their lives.

In this way, Emanuel asserts, the complete lives system is not a utilitarian system; while it would allow us to withhold medical care from the elderly, based on their age, it would do so in a way that would not open the door for discriminating against others, for other reasons.

DrRich understands this reasoning because he proposed something entirely similar in his book, as an option for dealing with the age issue in a rationing system. In fact, since DrRich wrote his book a few years before Emanuel published his “complete lives system,” it is entirely possible that Emanuel got his idea from yours truly.

DrRich does not expect any thanks from Dr. Emanuel in this regard, however, and in fact he wishes to thank Dr. Emanuel for showing him the fatal flaw in such thinking. Indeed, thanks to Dr. Emanuel, if DrRich were to produce a new edition of his book, he would propose no such thing.

For, no sooner does Dr. Emanuel propose his complete lives system as an alternative to utilitarian ethical reasoning, than he demonstrates, in the very same article, how easily his system can be twisted to the ends of utilitarian ethics.

Specifically, Emanuel argues that a healthcare rationing system should also discriminate against the very young, and asserts that his “complete lives system” justifies such discrimination (since every individual, at one time in their lives, is very young). But in explaining why it would be desirable to withhold medical services from the very young, Emanuel reveals that his rationale, in fact, is entirely utilitarian:

“Consideration of the importance of complete lives also supports modifying the youngest-first principle by prioritizing adolescents and young adults over infants (figure). Adolescents have received substantial education and parental care, investments that will be wasted without a complete life. Infants, in contrast, have not yet received these investments.” (The Lancet, vol 373, p. 428)

livessavedSo, Emanuel holds that it is okay to discriminate against infants, toddlers and young children on the grounds that society has not “invested” a lot of resources in them yet. That is, their worth to society is not all that great.

This provision is extremely disturbing, to DrRich at least. For it essentially discards the notion that all human lives are of equal intrinsic value, in favor of the idea that an individual’s real value ought to be determined by their worthiness to the collective. And so society has the right and the duty to determine which individual lives are valuable enough to save, and which are not. Note that the rationale for discriminating against the elderly in the complete lives system was framed specifically to avoid having to do this.

In DrRich’s view, this provision against the young entirely negates the purported ethical premise of “complete lives.” This provision is what finally places the state, the insurers, or the GOD panels in the position of assigning intrinsic value to individual human lives, from a distance, as a matter of policy. If this can be done based on extreme youth, then it can also be done based on any other factor which some empowered panel decides will influence the worth of individuals to society.

The above figure, from Emanuel’s article on the complete lives system, reduces the question to a stark graph, with age on the X axis and value to society on the Y axis. Your age is determined by God. Your value to society is determined by the state.

It is easy to envision other, similar graphs, with your worthiness to society plotted on the Y axis, and certain personal features other than age plotted on they X axis – your income, your IQ, your disabilities, your BMI, etc.

DrRich reminds his readers that eugenics has been, from the beginning, an intrinsic part of the Progressive program. The idea that society can (and must) be perfected hinges, to a large extent, on the idea that mankind can (and must) be perfected. And perfecting mankind will require at least some culling of the herd. Indeed, early Progressives unabashedly embraced eugenics as an essential feature of societal perfection – and said so. Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Bertrand Russell, H. G. Wells, and Margaret Sanger are only the most well-known of the Progressives who openly extolled eugenics.

Openly espousing eugenics became politically inadvisable after the Nazi atrocities came to light. But, since you can never achieve a perfect society while you are “carrying” a large proportion of people who are defective in their bodies, or minds, or thoughts, finding an acceptable way to eliminate such undesirables remains intrinsic to Progressivism.

DrRich believes that gaining control of the healthcare system, and gaining control of who gets what, when and how, provides both a new venue and a new language for Progressives to bring their program to fruition.

He humbly suggests that Dr. Emanuel’s “complete lives system” is an example of this new language, and that it offers a glimpse of what a system of Progressive healthcare rationing will look like.

*This blog post was originally published at The Covert Rationing Blog*


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