DEATH PANELS BACK IN THE NEWS
At Least in the Land of Oz for People with Hepatitis C
Death Panels are back in the news, at least in the Land of Oz (i.e., Kansas). This time the target seems to be assigned to a group of conservative legislators from Kansas recommending that patients in need of expensive medications for an infectious disease should be denied them if they don’t adhere to their regimens or follow physicians recommendations regarding lifestyle changes.
During the special hearing conducted by the KanCare Oversight Committee on Tuesday, December 29, the Committee approved (by voice vote) a resolution not to cover the cost of the medications for noncompliant patients. Two members of the Committee strongly objected to the Committee’s recommendation, The Wichita Eagle reported.
A week later on Tuesday, January 5, Ron Sylvester of the Hutchinson News assigned the Death Panel” label to the legislators’ effort in publishing this editorial.
Ironic how the tables have turned. The original Death Panel label was assigned to a non-existent provision in the Affordable Care Act. While we can hope this claim to be apocryphal as well, it deserves to be examined as did the one in 2009.
Provider-Patient Relationship Interference
Hepatitis C medications work, but they are expensive. People who have the disease are often subject to stigmatization because of the infectious nature of how the disease is usually transmitted. Often, people harbor the illness in a dormant state for years and are never tested. Many may transmit it unknowingly through a variety of ways, including contaminated needles. In some cases, however, lapses in infection-control procedures are at fault, such as those that occur through manicures, pedicures, piercing, tattoos and sports. To learn more click here.
One might raise the ethical question as to why legislators need to weigh in on an issue that seems pretty clear to be part of the relationship between provider and patient. Should we begin denying coverage for oxygen to patients who continue to smoke or deny diabetes meds to patients who don’t follow prescribed diets? All of these patients bear personal responsibility. Some comply, some don’t, some struggle and fail. Alternatives may need to be identified, but why can’t we leave that to practitioner and patient? Withholding life-saving treatment for a patient who hasn’t complied may be a challenge for the healthcare team and the patient, but is it a reason to abandon the patient’s coverage? Could it be the high cost of the medication or the mode of transmission that policy makers find objectionable part?
Alternatives to a Slippery Slope
Personal responsibility and the relationship between physicians and patients should not be turned into a series of ultimatums. Denying proven treatments for a disease by legislative fiat (regulatory or statutory) because of a failure of personal responsibility eventually leads us to the point where a likely failure of “lifestyle” or “behavior” bodes ill for every last one of us
The Panel’s recommendation needs to be “put to rest” before it has a chance to hasten a patient’s death. We need to bury the whole concept of Death Panels across the political, ideological and healthcare spectrum.
Discussing and exploring ways to engage non-adherent patients is a worthy enterprise, but we’ve got to be more imaginative and innovative in our ways to achieve health outcomes than cutting off a lifeline because the patient can’t behave in an “acceptable” manner.
John G. Carney is the president and CEO of the Center for Practical Bioethics.