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Bureaucratic Health By: Peter Pitts
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The presidential candidates’ plans to address the nation’s on-going economic upheaval have dominated the campaign news coverage. But it’s more important than ever that the media, voters, and the candidates themselves don’t lose focus on other major domestic problem facing this country: healthcare reform.

The essential issue at hand is whether the healthcare industry needs more or less government control. McCain has rightly criticized Obama’s plan for putting bureaucrats between you and your doctor. But, frighteningly, that might happen regardless of whether Obama is elected in November.

Legislation is currently in the pipeline to create a government agency to evaluate the relative effectiveness of different medical treatments. In Britain, such an agency already exists. And because bureaucrats have ended up in charge of healthcare, heinous injustices have become the norm.

One recent victim of the British government's inexcusable behavior is Colin Ross. Mr. Ross suffers from multiple myeloma, a kind of blood cancer. Given the rareness of this disease, only one drug -- Calgene's Revlimid -- held any chance of effectively treating his illness. Despite this, the U.K. health system denied Mr. Ross his only hope of survival.

Even though Revlimid is readily available throughout Europe and the U.S., the British health system decided that it didn't want to foot the bill.

This is a direct result of the limited resources of Britain's government-funded health system.

Before a new treatment can be covered by the NHS, Britain's National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) must first evaluate it. If NICE decides that the drug isn't substantially more effective for the "average" Briton than other less-expensive alternative treatments, it will recommend that the NHS save its money and not cover it.

Unfortunately for Colin Ross, he isn't one of the "average" patients that NICE took into account when rendering their decision.

It's exactly this kind of nightmare scenario that Senator McCain would like to avoid. But just last month, Senators Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) introduced a bill that would create an American equivalent to Britain's NICE. The Health Care Comparative Effectiveness Research Institute, as it would be known, would have the same proposed purpose as its British counterpart.

And like NICE, the research conducted by the new institute could end up being used to deny treatment to America's less fortunate citizens. If this new agency decided that certain treatments didn't meet their standards for cost-effectiveness, the U.S. government would have a reason to withhold those treatments from patients using government-run healthcare programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

The British example has proved that this is what happens when you put thrifty bureaucrats in charge of a nation's healthcare system. And yet, if Democrats win the White House in November, this could be the first of many British-style policies that the U.S. adopts.

If McCain's rhetoric on the campaign trail is any indicator, the Senator recognizes the gravity of this problem. And with any luck, a McCain administration would leave life-or-death treatment decisions to doctors and patients -- not government paper-pushers.

Peter J. Pitts is President of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest and a former FDA Associate Commissioner.

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