In an appearance on CNBC television Monday, Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman Charlie Munger said that the US health care system is “ridiculous” in its complexity. Appearing alongside his fellow billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, the 93-year-old said, “The amount of waste from overtreatment of the dying is just disgusting.”
While Munger’s net worth of $1.43 billion makes him small fry when compared to Berkshire Hathaway CEO Buffett’s $73.4 billion, he still ranks in the top 0.01 percent of the wealthiest Americans.
His comments take up a common theme in the current “debate” between the two big business parties on the state of health care in America today: people are living too long. They argue that many—especially the elderly—are receiving costly and “unnecessary” medical treatments, health care costs are skyrocketing, and something must be done about it.
Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tom Price—an ardent opponent of Medicaid and Medicare, the government insurance programs for the poor and seniors—was asked recently in an interview on Fox News about how the House Republicans’ American Health Care Act (AHCA) would widen the ratio of premium prices between young and older people from the current 3:1 to 5:1, allowing insurers to charge older people drastically more.
“Well, it’s pricing for what an individual’s health status is, and that’s important to appreciate,” the HHS secretary remarked. “Someone is going to pay for health coverage for the American people and the question is, how do you do that.” Price’s answer is that older people’s health insurance premiums should skyrocket simply due to the natural process of aging.
Rep. Mo Brooks, Republican of Alabama, has another novel idea. Commenting that the AHCA would “require people who have higher health care costs to contribute more to the insurance pool,” Brooks said, “That helps offset all these costs, thereby reducing the cost to those people who lead good lives, they’re healthy, they’ve done the things to keep their bodies healthy.”
In other words, a child born with a congenital heart defect, a teenager living in poverty who develops diabetes, a miner who has black lung disease—all conditions that contribute to increased health care costs—should be punished with higher premiums, or be priced out of the insurance system altogether, because they presumably are not leading “good lives.”
References to “overtreatment of the dying” are not restricted to Republicans like Munger. Ezekiel Emanuel, a close adviser to the Obama administration and one of the key architects of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), is a Democrat.
Emanuel wrote in 1996 that “services provided to individuals who are irreversibly prevented from being or becoming participating citizens are not basic and should not be guaranteed. An obvious example is not guaranteeing health services to patients with dementia.”
According to this rationale, health care for someone with Alzheimer’s—the most common form of dementia and the sixth leading cause of death in the US—is yet another example of “over treating” a condition that mainly affects the elderly. As the disease is ultimately fatal, and there is yet no cure, health care “experts” like Emanuel reason, why squander health care dollars on elderly patients who are sure to die, sooner rather than later?