The Gift of Life is Not Free

Over the past few months, I’ve been watching our national, state and local governments struggle with budget deficits and how to turn around our declining economic condition. Even here in Minnesota, which has historically had among the most progressive social-support systems in the country, policy-makers are talking about deep cuts in services for the disabled (both young and old). To support their plans, they bring forth statistics about the growth of this population and the rising cost to support them. All this talk got me thinking about how we got into this position. The conclusion that I came to is that it is the price we pay for the miracle of modern medicine.

Each day I am amazed at the advances of modern medicine and the miracles that result from their good work. Better ways to detect disease are discovered. Improved treatments—or even cures—eliminate suffering and death. And while we celebrate these victories, seldom do we consider the consequences to our society.

When is the last time you heard someone talk about SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome)? Marc Peterzell, chairman of the American SIDS Institute remarked that “the sudden infant death rate is at an all time low. Since 1983, the rate of SIDS has fallen by over 50 percent.” Our Melissa could have easily been a SIDS victim. If we had taken her home not realizing that she was falling into a metabolic coma, we could have easily lost her. I believe that expanded screening of newborns for inherited diseases and improved treatments are saving more babies. But in most cases, these children carry with them a life-long medical burden. And that cost is absorbed by our society.

The March of Dimes reports that the lifetime costs for a child with a birth defect range from $140,000 to $700,000. For example, the lifetime cost of one case of spina bifida is close to $300,000. The Florida Birth Defects Registry (1999) said that the lifetime cost of care for a child with Down’s syndrome is nearly $500,000. These costs impact healthcare spending through Medicaid, catastrophic insurance costs or uncompensated health care costs.

At the other end of the spectrum is Life Expectancy. Final data for 2003 (the most recent available) show that life expectancy at birth for the total U.S. population has reached an all-time high of 77.5 years, up from 49.2 years at the turn of the 20th century. As life expectancy grows, so does the cost to society. The aged consume more healthcare resources. And they also consume more human capital through their need for assisted living support.

My point is that, as a society, we are investing trillions of dollars into medical advancements … yet we seem to have lost sight of the fact there is a long-term cost related to this medical “success.”

The question is … does our society have an obligation to absorb the cost of supporting the population that the miracles of medicine are creating?


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