This semester, I am taking Principles of Macroeconomics at college. I found an excellent editorial related to the health care debate written by Gregory Mankiw, who actually wrote my college textbook. As I found it very interesting, I hope that you do, also.
EVERY morning, I take a small white pill that makes me think deep philosophical thoughts about the American health care system, the value of life, and the relationship between man and state. No, it is not some illegal psychedelic left over from the 1960s along with my tie-dyed T-shirts. But if you bear with me, I bet this pill will have the same effect on you.
The pill is a statin — a type of pharmaceutical developed over the last few decades to lower a person’s cholesterol. My father died of cardiovascular disease, and unfortunately I inherited his genetic predisposition. Yet I am hoping that modern medicine will help me avoid his fate. So like millions of middle-age men, I take my little pill every morning.
Here is the question I ask as the pill passes through my lips: Is it worth it?
Now you might be tempted to say, “Of course it is.” Most people would prefer to avoid an early death. If the wonders of modern science might put off the inevitable for a while longer, why not give it a shot?
And that is, indeed, how I thought about the decision when my doctor recommended the treatment. One thing I did not consider was the price. Like most consumers of health care, I was insulated from economic concerns. I knew that the insurance company — and, indirectly, all its policyholders — would pick up most of the tab. This arrangement, encouraged by the tax system, ensures that I get the benefit of the pills while paying little of the extra costs they generate.
An optimist might hope that my doctor, or someone higher up in the health care hierarchy, made a rational cost-benefit calculation on society’s behalf. To figure out whether my treatment makes sense, one would have to weigh the cost of the drug against the benefit of an extended life. And to do that, one would have to put a dollar value on my life — the kind of calculation that makes everyone but economists squirm.
Not long ago, I read that a physician estimated that statins cost $150,000 for each year of life saved. That approximate figure reflects not only the dollars patients and insurance companies spend on the treatment but also — and just as important — an estimate of how effective it is in prolonging life. (That number is for men. Women have a lower risk of heart disease.)
That estimate is, at best, approximate, but it certainly suggests that preventive care is not always cheap. The magnitude of the figure also brings to mind hard questions of political philosophy. CONTINUED