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Sick Sob Stories

By JOHN STOSSEL
September 13, 2007

In Michael Moore's movie "Sicko," a widow named Julie Pierce tells a tearful story: Her husband died of kidney cancer after their health-insurance company denied payment for a bone-marrow transplant that might have saved his life. Ms. Pierce's rage is palpable as she repeats the word her insurers used in response to her husband's request. "They denied it," she sneers. "Said it was 'experimental.'"

Viewers of the documentary are meant to understand that "experimental" is health-insurance code for "expensive," and that Ms. Pierce's husband was left to die for the sake of profit. According to Mr. Moore's movie, "Any payment for a claim is referred to as a medical loss," and when a claim is denied, "it's a savings to the company."

But Mr. Moore is so busy following the money that he doesn't take the time to follow the science. Treating cancer patients with bone-marrow transplants has a dubious history.

Twenty years ago, many oncologists believed that bone-marrow transplants, along with high doses of chemotherapy, might offer a cure for breast cancer. Insurance companies refused to pay, calling the treatment experimental and unproven. Breast-cancer sufferers went to court: In one case, a jury awarded $77 million to the family of a woman who was denied payment for the treatment. Wives and mothers told heart-rending stories in newspapers and on TV. Politicians quickly moved to guarantee the treatment to all breast-cancer patients. Ten state legislatures mandated that every insurance policy cover bone-marrow transplantation for breast-cancer patients. Amid the media circus and political self-congratulation, the question of whether bone-marrow transplants are medically effective faded into the background.

The sad truth is that the treatment isn't effective. When researchers released the results of their clinical trials to the American Society of Clinical Oncology in 1999, they showed that the treatment offered no benefit. Worse, it often killed women faster than their cancer, and caused them unnecessary pain. At a time when their health was at its greatest risk, more than 30,000 women were exposed to an invasive, harmful and ultimately useless treatment that the National Institutes of Health no longer recommends. But only one state legislature has repealed its law requiring insurance companies to pay for the treatment. Some doctors believe bone-marrow transplants might help kidney cancer patients, and the NIH is conducting clinical trials to find out. Until the treatment has been shown to do more good than harm, insurers are reluctant to pay for it.

Mr. Moore claims that because private insurance companies are driven by profit, they will always deny care to deserving patients. For this reason, he argues, profit-making health-insurance companies should be abolished, our health- care dollars turned over to the government, and the U.S. should institute a health-care system like the ones in Canada, Britain or France. But does Mr. Moore think, even for a second, that any of the government systems he touts in his movie would have provided a bone-marrow transplant to Ms. Pierce's husband? Fat chance.

When government is in charge of health care, the result is not that everyone gets access to experimental treatments, but that people get less of the care that is absolutely necessary. At any given time, just under a million Canadians are on waiting lists to receive care, and one in eight British patients must wait more than a year for hospital treatment. Canadian Karen Jepp, who gave birth to quadruplets last month, had to fly to Montana for the delivery: neonatal units in her own country had no room.

Rationing in Britain is so severe that one hospital recently tried saving money by not changing bed-sheets between patients. Instead of washing sheets, the staff was encouraged to just turn them over, British papers report. The wait for an appointment with a dentist is so long that people are using pliers to pull out their own rotting teeth.

Patients in countries with government-run health care can't get timely access to many basic medical treatments, never mind experimental treatments. That's why, if you suffer from cancer, you're better off in the U.S., which is home to the newest treatments and where patients have access to the best diagnostic equipment. People diagnosed with cancer in America have a better chance of living a full life than people in countries with socialized systems. Among women diagnosed with breast cancer, only one-quarter die in the U.S., compared to one-third in France and nearly half in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Moore thinks that profit is the enemy and government is the answer. The opposite is true. Profit is what has created the amazing scientific innovations that the U.S. offers to the world. If government takes over, innovation slows, health care is rationed, and spending is controlled by politicians more influenced by the sob story of the moment than by medical science.

Mr. Stossel is co-anchor of "20/20." ABC News will air his TV special on health care at 10 p.m. EST Friday.

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