The Advocate’s Role
Fales loved my parents, knew their suffering close at hand, continued to oppose a pacemaker and wasn’t alarmed by death. If he had had the chance to sit down with my parents, he could have explained that the pacemaker’s battery would last 10 years and asked whether my father wanted to live to be 89 in his nearly mute and dependent state. He could have discussed the option of using a temporary external pacemaker that, I later learned, could have seen my dad safely through surgery. But my mother never consulted Fales. And the system would have effectively penalized him if she had. Medicare would have paid him a standard office-visit rate of $54 for what would undoubtedly have been a long meeting—and nothing for phone calls to work out a plan with Rogan and the surgeon.
Medicare has made minor improvements since then, and in the House version of the health care reform bill debated last year, much better payments for such conversations were included. But after the provision was distorted as reimbursement for “death panels,” it was dropped. In my father’s case, there was only a brief informed-consent process, covering the boilerplate risks of minor surgery, handled by the general surgeon.
I believe that my father’s doctors did their best within a compartmentalized and time-pressured medical system. But in the absence of any other guiding hand, there is no doubt that economics helped shape the wider context in which doctors made decisions. Had we been at the Mayo Clinic—where doctors are salaried, medical records are electronically organized and care is coordinated by a single doctor—things might have turned out differently. But Middletown is part of the fee-for-service medical economy. Doctors peddle their wares on a piecework basis; communication among them is haphazard; thinking is often short term; nobody makes money when medical interventions are declined; and nobody is in charge except the marketplace.
And so on Jan. 2, 2003, at Middlesex Hospital, the surgeon implanted my father’s pacemaker using local anesthetic. Medicare paid him $461 and the hospital a flat fee of about $12,000, of which an estimated $7,500 went to St. Jude Medical, the maker of the device. The hernia was fixed a few days later.
It was a case study in what primary-care doctors have long bemoaned: that Medicare rewards doctors far better for doing procedures than for assessing whether they should be done at all. The incentives for overtreatment continue, said Dr. Ted Epperly, the board chairman of the American Academy of Family Physicians, because those who profit from them—specialists, hospitals, drug companies and the medical-device manufacturers—spend money lobbying Congress and the public to keep it that way.
Last year, doctors, hospitals, drug companies, medical-equipment manufacturers and other medical professionals spent $545 million on lobbying, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. This may help explain why researchers estimate that 20 to 30 percent of Medicare’s $510 billion budget goes for unnecessary tests and treatment. Why cost-containment received short shrift in health care reform. Why physicians like Fales net an average of $173,000 a year, while noninvasive cardiologists like Rogan net about $419,000.
The system rewarded nobody for saying “no” or even “wait”—not even my frugal, intelligent, Consumer-Reports-reading mother. Medicare and supplemental insurance covered almost every penny of my father’s pacemaker. My mother was given more government-mandated consumer information when she bought a new Camry a year later.
And so my father’s electronically managed heart—now requiring frequent monitoring, paid by Medicare—became part of the $24 billion worldwide cardiac-device industry and an indirect subsidizer of the fiscal health of American hospitals. The profit margins that manufacturers earn on cardiac devices is close to 30 percent. Cardiac procedures and diagnostics generate about 20 percent of hospital revenues and 30 percent of profits.
Shortly after New Year’s 2003, my mother belatedly called and told me about the operations, which went off without a hitch. She didn’t call earlier, she said, because she didn’t want to worry me. My heart sank, but I said nothing. It is one thing to silently hope that your beloved father’s heart might fail. It is another to actively abet his death.
The pacemaker bought my parents two years of limbo, two of purgatory and two of hell. At first they soldiered on, with my father no better and no worse. My mother reread Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Full Catastrophe Living,” bought a self-help book on patience and rose each morning to meditate.
In 2005, the age-related degeneration that had slowed my father’s heart attacked his eyes, lungs, bladder and bowels. Clots as narrow as a single human hair lodged in tiny blood vessels in his brain, killing clusters of neurons by depriving them of oxygen. Long partly deaf, he began losing his sight to wet macular degeneration, requiring ocular injections that cost nearly $2,000 each. A few months later, he forgot his way home from the university pool. He grew incontinent. He was collapsing physically, like an ancient, shored-up house.