Recently, a depressing story from England provided a glimpse into America's not-too-distant (and oh-so-grim) healthcare future as it could be in the looming Age of Obama. A cancer patient in Britain was denied the drug that could have held his kidney cancer at bay for six months, because treatment was deemed to be too expensive by British healthcare authorities.
And you thought life was a priceless gift from God. Guess again. In Britain, at least, the "priceless gift" has a price tag. And to the British government, Bruce Hardy's life is not worth the $54,000 cost of cancer treatment.
The drug in question is Pfizer's Stutent, which according to clinical trials, can delay the progress of cancer for as much as half a year.
This shocking decision was made by the British government agency called the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (which creates the incredibly ironic acronym of "NICE," even though this particular decision is anything but). According to the guidelines set by this agency, the British government can only "afford" about $22,750 to prolong a person's life - except in rare cases.
Of course, only true apparatchiks could so dispassionately make such an outrageous statement in public, and there's been massive public protests over the ruling throughout the UK - as there should be.
In spite of the protests, however, the literal price-tagging of human life has been standard practice in the British healthcare system. It's why there's unusually long waits for procedures that would be nearly immediate here in U.S. In fact, if the Hardys lived in the U.S., getting the drug wouldn't be an issue - but the family would likely have to pay for part of the cost of the treatment regimen.
The problem is, drug prices are rising rapidly, and budgets are shrinking even faster. And that's a global problem, as any glance at the headlines or a 10-minute viewing of the evening news will tell you. And even without a national socialized healthcare program, some version of NICE is likely coming to the U.S. sooner than you might think.
Dr. Sean Tunis, who once served as the Bush Administration's chief medical officer of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, claims that during his tenure he spent a good portion of time "learning about NICE and trying to adopt the processes and mechanisms they used, and just couldn't."
Why not? Because in America, the entire concept of determining the medical devices or treatments available to patients based on cost would have prompted a national outrage. But outrage or not, Dr. Tunis believes process is coming soon.
Of course, no one is willing to accept the blame for situation that the Hardys find themselves in. Higher ups at NICE point their finger at Big Pharma for jacking up costs in order "to get profits up so their executives can get better bonuses." As usual, Big Pharma reps are talking out of both sides of their mouths. On the one hand, they claim that they're more than willing to be as cooperative as they can with NICE. Then, at the same time, they send their own advocacy group, Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, into the fray to paint NICE's executives as "terrorists." Caught in the middle, of course, are people like Bruce Hardy. Sadly, he's little more than an object lesson. And it looks like object lessons like these will only grow more common in the coming years.