Friday, February 22, 2008

Should the rich get better health care?

This anecdote from the United Kingdom is the tip of a looming iceberg:

Debbie Hirst’s...breast cancer had metastasized, and the health service would not provide her with Avastin, a drug that is widely used in the United States and Europe to keep such cancers at bay. So, with her oncologist’s support, she decided last year to try to pay the $120,000 cost herself, while continuing with the rest of her publicly financed treatment.

By December, she had raised $20,000 and was preparing to sell her house to raise more. But then the government, which had tacitly allowed such arrangements before, put its foot down. Mrs. Hirst heard the news from her doctor.

“He looked at me and said: ‘I’m so sorry, Debbie. I’ve had my wrists slapped from the people upstairs, and I can no longer offer you that service,’ ” Mrs. Hirst said in an interview.

“I said, ‘Where does that leave me?’ He said, ‘If you pay for Avastin, you’ll have to pay for everything’ ” — in other words, for all her cancer treatment, far more than she could afford.

Officials said that allowing Mrs. Hirst and others like her to pay for extra drugs to supplement government care would violate the philosophy of the health service by giving richer patients an unfair advantage over poorer ones.

This kind of situation is likely to arise more over time. Technological advance is making state-of-the-art health care increasingly expensive. In any kind of national health system, some treatments will, by simple cost-benefit calculation, be deemed too expensive to provide to all citizens. But does that mean those of above-average income should be excluded as well? Should they lose basic benefits if they choose to pay for these marginal services with their own money?

If you say yes to this last question, as the U.K. health service has, here is a related one: Should a parent who hires an after-school tutor for his child be barred from sending the child to the public schools?

Some people like to think of health care and education of basic human rights. Maybe they are. But they are also normal goods. That is, the income elasticity of demand is positive. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the right cost-benefit calculation for providing the good depends on the income of the consumer.

Achieving both efficiency and equality in the provision of these goods is impossible. Dealing with this conflict will provide a major challenge to the political system in the years to come.