New York Civic – Longevity: Blessing or Curse? By HENRY J. STERN

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How Does Government Pay for Services People Want?

One recurring problem in government is the shortage of funds needed to meet reasonable demands for services by the public.

This situation occurs for a number of reasons. One, when payment is made by a third party demand for services increases substantially; the more that is provided, the greater the level of expectation for additional services. These demands, although costly are not inherently unreasonable. But the question is where to draw the line?

At what level does one provide or discontinue treatment for autism, spectrum disorders, dialysis or other serious medical conditions? To what level of existence is it ethical to condemn the patient because either he is uninsured or has exhausted his benefits?

It may also be asked, how can society support the steady increase in heath costs which is far above the GNP? Even if 90% of the waste or inefficiency were eliminated, wouldn't society be engaged in a game of desperate catch-up with the rapid advances in medical science which greatly increase our life-span without adequately addressing the complications that arise from advanced age? The conquest of certain disorders has led to an increase in death rates from other causes.

Ultimately, the bottom line is that sooner or later everyone dies. One might live for ten years on a respirator, but that does not answer the questions: who turns it on, who turns it off, whose consent is required and what is the quality of life?  That is why people, although blessed with good faith intentions and capability, often move away from the field of medicine to pursue other endeavors after early participation.

When I visit pediatric wards, I am struck by the relative cheer of the patients and staff even though some children are suffering from terrible diseases. The situation New York City faces is similar to the problems of many other cities. Unless health care becomes a recognized reimbursable right, the situation becomes more serious over the years to come. This is not a question of wrong-doing by one group of individuals, although there are professional parasites that prey on people's fears for their own private profit. If you care for an elderly or disabled person, you know the steady toll it takes on the rest of us (or, as the politically correct, now refer to the majority somewhat dismissively, the temporarily able-bodied).

When Sarah Palin sounded what became a national alarm on "death panels", which she falsely said would empower federal bureaucrats to determine the life or death of every American by their authority to prioritize medical care, she struck a sensitive chord which becomes more important to people as they grow older and begin to feel the ravages of physical and mental deterioration.

Behind many big lies, there may be a small truth. The fact that decisions on life or death may be made in part by unrelated professionals, rather than family members, alarmed not only the Tea Party crowd, but other conservatives who believed that they would have the last word as to whether they and their elderly parents continued to live in comfort and dignity. For how long should lives be extended by increasingly artificial means and substitute organs? How should we take into account the nature and the consequences of age-related illness, the possibility, if any, of recovery, and the depth of the pockets of the afflicted and their putative heirs?

Even though in fact the survivors' and dependents' choices would be severely limited by the same market forces they extol in principle, it is part of American exceptionalism to believe that we can do whatever we really want to do.

Many people's views on issues of health are heavily influenced by the amount of physical and emotional pain they are enduring. Also, since people's pain thresholds are believed to differ widely, it is difficult to set standards for human suffering. The role of government in measuring or postponing the death of particular individuals is an area which requires both better monitoring and sound judgment. The religious or philosophical views of the person dying should also be given more credence and respect than they receive today, where seniors are often infantilized by their caretakers and hospital staff.

Speaking only for myself, I want to determine when my life should end, rather than leaving the issue to strangers who may have economic interests which conflict with my wishes and those of my family. Some day American society will advance to the level when my wife and I will receive the same consideration that we gave Boomer in 2004.

For Boomer's biography and obituary, the most widely reprinted column in New York Civic's history, click here.

Henry J. Stern writes as StarQuest. Direct email to him at Peruse Mr. Stern’s writing at New York Civic.


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eHeziNew York Civic – Longevity: Blessing or Curse? By HENRY J. STERN

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