THERE'S A CERTAIN AGE at which you cease to regard your own death as a distant hypothetical and start to view it as a coming event. For me, it was 67—the age at which my father died. For many Americans, I suspect it's 70—the age that puts you within striking distance of our average national life expectancy of 78.1 years. Even if you still feel pretty spry, you suddenly find that your roster of doctor's appointments has expanded, along with your collection of daily medications. You grow accustomed to hearing that yet another person you once knew has dropped off the twig. And you feel more and more like a walking ghost yourself, invisible to the younger people who push past you on the subway escalator. Like it or not, death becomes something you think about, often on a daily basis.
Actually, you don't think about death, per se, as much as you do about dying—about when and where and especially how you're going to die. Will you have to deal with a long illness? With pain, immobility, or dementia? Will you be able to get the care you need, and will you have enough money to pay for it? Most of all, will you lose control over what life you have left, as well as over the circumstances of your death?
These are precisely the preoccupations that the right so cynically exploited in the debate over health care reform, with that ominous talk of Washington bean counters deciding who lives and dies. It was all nonsense, of course—the worst kind of political scare tactic. But at the same time, supporters of health care reform seemed to me too quick to dismiss old people's fears as just so much paranoid foolishness. There are reasons why the death-panel myth found fertile ground—and those reasons go beyond the gullibility of half-senile old farts.
While politicians of all stripes shun the idea of health care rationing as the political third rail that it is, most of them accept a premise that leads, one way or another, to that end. Here's what I mean: Nearly every other industrialized country recognizes health care as a human right, whose costs and benefits are shared among all citizens. But in the United States, the leaders of both political parties along with most of the "experts" persist in treating health care as a commodity that is purchased, in one way or another, by those who can afford it. Conservatives embrace this notion as the perfect expression of the all-powerful market; though they make a great show of recoiling from the term, in practice they are endorsing rationing on the basis of wealth. Liberals, including supporters of President Obama's health care reform, advocate subsidies, regulation, and other modest measures to give the less fortunate a little more buying power. But as long as health care is viewed as a product to be bought and sold, even the most well-intentioned reformers will someday soon have to come to grips with health care rationing, if not by wealth then by some other criteria.
You could say I believe in one form of health care rationing: the kind you choose for yourself.
In a country that already spends more than 16 percent of each GDP dollar on health care (PDF), it's easy to see why so many people believe there's simply not enough of it to go around. But keep in mind that the rest of the industrialized world manages to spend between 20 and 90 percent less per capita and still rank higher than the US in overall health care performance. In 2004, a team of researchers including Princeton's Uwe Reinhardt, one of the nation's best known experts on health economics, found that while the US spends 134 percent more than the median of the world's most developed nations, we get less for our money—fewer physician visits and hospital days per capita, for example—than our counterparts in countries like Germany, Canada, and Australia. (We do, however, have more MRI machines and more cesarean sections.)
Where does the money go instead? By some estimates, administration and insurance profits alone eat up at least 30 percent of our total health care bill (and most of that is in the private sector—Medicare's overhead is around 2 percent). In other words, we don't have too little to go around—we overpay for what we get, and we don't allocate our spending where it does us the most good. "In most [medical] resources we have a surplus," says Dr. David Himmelstein, cofounder of Physicians for a National Health Program. "People get large amounts of care that don't do them any good and might cause them harm [while] others don't get the necessary amount."
Looking at the numbers, it's pretty safe to say that with an efficient health care system, we could spend a little less than we do now and provide all Americans with the most spectacular care the world has ever known. But in the absence of any serious challenge to the health-care-as-commodity system, we are doomed to a battlefield scenario where Americans must fight to secure their share of a "scarce" resource in a life-and-death struggle that pits the rich against the poor, the insured against the uninsured—and increasingly, the old against the young.
For years, any push to improve the nation's finances—balance the budget, pay for the bailout, or help stimulate the economy—has been accompanied by rumblings about the greedy geezers who resist entitlement "reforms" (read: cuts) with their unconscionable demands for basic health care and a hedge against destitution. So, too, today: Already, President Obama's newly convened deficit commission looks to be blaming the nation's fiscal woes not on tax cuts, wars, or bank bailouts, but on the burden of Social Security and Medicare. (The commission's co-chair, former Republican senator Alan Simpson, has declared, "This country is gonna go to the bow-wows unless we deal with entitlements.")
Old people's anxiety in the face of such hostile attitudes has provided fertile ground for Republican disinformation and fearmongering. But so has the vacuum left by Democratic reformers. Too often, in their zeal to prove themselves tough on "waste," they've allowed connections to be drawn between two things that, to my mind, should never be spoken of in the same breath: death and cost.