Seniors Falling Through The Health Care Cost Cracks

By David South

Today’s Seniors (Canada), December 1993

When Orangeville senior Donald Potter was told he was too old to receive a bone marrow transplant, he paid $150,000 to get one in the United States. 

His case, recently made public by provincial Conservative leader Mike Harris, has raised the disturbing issue of health care rationing for seniors. 

Potter, who has Hodgkin’s lymphoma, says he was told the cut-off age is 55; since he was 64 at the time he needed a transplant, he was told last February it was too risky to obtain the procedure. Faced with a few months to live, he went to Rochester, New York, where bone marrow transplants were done on patients into their late 70s. 

Money

Potter believes the real issue is money. The government doesn’t have enough, so he couldn’t get the treatment that could save his life. 

Cost-cutting resulting from the provincial government’s social contract and expenditure control plans has left physicians with the quandary of serving more people with less money. This dilemma has led them to prioritize who gets services, though physicians maintain such decisions are based on many factors other than age, including lifestyle, prognosis and effectiveness of the therapy. 

Transplants

Bone marrow transplants are a particularly emotional issue for Premier Bob Rae, who in early October was driven to tears handling questions regarding rationing of this service. His brother died of lymphatic cancer in 1989 after a failed bone marrow transplant for which Premier Rae was the donor. 

“I can’t knock the system that hard, I just don’t feel the government spends the money properly,” says a calm and unresentful Potter.

Many seniors are frightened when they hear the government needs to make cuts, fearing they could be the first to go when it comes to allocating rationed services. 

“From the perspective of seniors it is a very scary time right now,” says David Kelly of Toronto’s Senior Link, a community social service agency. “Everything is being questioned, all our social services. Instead of looking at how to solve the problems, we’re just going to cut out things, and that’s going to be our solution. It doesn’t necessarily work.”

The issue of rationing services based on age is a dicey one. Ministry of Health spokesperson Layne Verbeek says the schedule of benefits makes no mention of age; and he’s right, because that would be unconstitutional. But when a doctor is presented with a fixed budget and a bulging sack of patients, the physician on the hospital ward has to decide who gets treated and with what. How a physician does this is theoretically based on a combination of factors, but doctors also have prejudices and misconceptions. 

Rationing

Many argue such queuing is a dangerous departure from the belief that the sick deserve to be treated. 

“Part of the problem is that few would admit to rationing on the basis of age alone,” says bioethicist Eric Meslin of Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Science Centre. “Most clinicians I’ve spoken with and worked with recognize that age alone is not a relevant criterion. But most clinicians would agree age does play a role in thinking about limiting care.”

Meslin admits the idea of denying health services based upon age alone has been making the rounds among health care professionals. 

Ethics

“There has been a debate in the last seven years in North America over whether age-based rationing is ethically acceptable,” says Meslin. “There is of course a spectrum of views, including the very extreme that says after a certain number of years you have obtained your benefit from society and you should step aside and allow others to make use of those resources.”

Meslin doesn’t feel good about going through any kind of health care rationing without a public debate over society’s values and what to expect from the health care system. 

And he is adamant that anybody who focuses solely on attacking the high costs of high-tech medicine and an aging population is making a value judgement about how society should spend its money, not stating a fact.

“A clinician who chooses to discriminate based on age alone is not only unethical, but unconstitutional. Having said that, no clinician worth their salt would be telling the truth if they did not consider who the patient was in the fullest sense of the term, including their age. However, not giving treatment because they are 80 is a numbers game; there isn’t good enough data to support it.” 

Meslin suggests a public debate on rationing services needs to take place. 

Needs

“We need to ask the elderly population what they want. It may be that they don’t want the kind of things the researchers and clinicians believe they want.”

Kelly at Senior Link believes cuts to free drugs are already one example of rationing. 

“There are a lot of ways we can go about changing our social services without cutting income support or access to medication. The same goes for what procedures will be performed,” says Kelly. 

Potter’s case graphically shows the human cost of the heavy hand of bureaucrats in a public system trying to save money. But the high cost of U.S. health care also leaves a bad taste in Potter’s mouth. 

“In the States, the cost is horrendous. At least we have that protection. But I happen to be one of the unfortunate ones that fell into the wrong slot. And there’s a lot of people like me.”