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Monday
Mar272017

Seniors falling through the health care cost cracks

 

By David South

Today’s Seniors (Canada), December 1993

When Orangeville senior Donald Potter was told he was too old to receive a bone marrow transplant, he paid $150,000 to get one in the United States. 

His case, recently made public by provincial Conservative leader Mike Harris, has raised the disturbing issue of health care rationing for seniors. 

Potter, who has Hodgkin’s lymphoma, says he was told the cut-off age is 55; since he was 64 at the time he needed a transplant, he was told last February it was too risky to obtain the procedure. Faced with a few months to live, he went to Rochester, New York, where bone marrow transplants were done on patients into their late 70s. 

Money

Potter believes the real issue is money. The government doesn’t have enough, so he couldn’t get the treatment that could save his life. 

Cost-cutting resulting from the provincial government’s social contract and expenditure control plans has left physicians with the quandary of serving more people with less money. This dilemma has led them to prioritize who gets services, though physicians maintain such decisions are based on many factors other than age, including lifestyle, prognosis and effectiveness of the therapy. 

Transplants

Bone marrow transplants are a particularly emotional issue for Premier Bob Rae, who in early October was driven to tears handling questions regarding rationing of this service. His brother died of lymphatic cancer in 1989 after a failed bone marrow transplant for which Premier Rae was the donor. 

“I can’t knock the system that hard, I just don’t feel the government spends the money properly,” says a calm and unresentful Potter.

Many seniors are frightened when they hear the government needs to make cuts, fearing they could be the first to go when it comes to allocating rationed services. 

“From the perspective of seniors it is a very scary time right now,” says David Kelly of Toronto’s Senior Link, a community social service agency. “Everything is being questioned, all our social services. Instead of looking at how to solve the problems, we’re just going to cut out things, and that’s going to be our solution. It doesn’t necessarily work.”

The issue of rationing services based on age is a dicey one. Ministry of Health spokesperson Layne Verbeek says the schedule of benefits makes no mention of age; and he’s right, because that would be unconstitutional. But when a doctor is presented with a fixed budget and a bulging sack of patients, the physician on the hospital ward has to decide who gets treated and with what. How a physician does this is theoretically based on a combination of factors, but doctors also have prejudices and misconceptions. 

Rationing

Many argue such queuing is a dangerous departure from the belief that the sick deserve to be treated. 

“Part of the problem is that few would admit to rationing on the basis of age alone,” says bioethicist Eric Meslin of Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Science Centre. “Most clinicians I’ve spoken with and worked with recognize that age alone is not a relevant criterion. But most clinicians would agree age does play a role in thinking about limiting care.”

Meslin admits the idea of denying health services based upon age alone has been making the rounds among health care professionals. 

Ethics

“There has been a debate in the last seven years in North America over whether age-based rationing is ethically acceptable,” says Meslin. “There is of course a spectrum of views, including the very extreme that says after a certain number of years you have obtained your benefit from society and you should step aside and allow others to make use of those resources.”

Meslin doesn’t feel good about going through any kind of health care rationing without a public debate over society’s values and what to expect from the health care system. 

And he is adamant that anybody who focuses solely on attacking the high costs of high-tech medicine and an aging population is making a value judgement about how society should spend its money, not stating a fact.

“A clinician who chooses to discriminate based on age alone is not only unethical, but unconstitutional. Having said that, no clinician worth their salt would be telling the truth if they did not consider who the patient was in the fullest sense of the term, including their age. However, not giving treatment because they are 80 is a numbers game; there isn’t good enough data to support it.” 

Meslin suggests a public debate on rationing services needs to take place. 

Needs

“We need to ask the elderly population what they want. It may be that they don’t want the kind of things the researchers and clinicians believe they want.”

Kelly at Senior Link believes cuts to free drugs are already one example of rationing. 

“There are a lot of ways we can go about changing our social services without cutting income support or access to medication. The same goes for what procedures will be performed,” says Kelly. 

Potter’s case graphically shows the human cost of the heavy hand of bureaucrats in a public system trying to save money. But the high cost of U.S. health care also leaves a bad taste in Potter’s mouth. 

“In the States, the cost is horrendous. At least we have that protection. But I happen to be one of the unfortunate ones that fell into the wrong slot. And there’s a lot of people like me.” 


Monday
Mar272017

New legislation will allow control of medical treatment

 

By David South

Today’s Seniors (Canada), December 1993

It isn’t the nicest thing to think about, but if accident or illness strikes, you could end up receiving unwanted treatment. 

But in 1994 things will change. The living will or advance directive - a document clearly stating a patient’s wishes about how they want to be treated - will become part of the doctor-patient relationship. 

A trio of acts passed last December - the Advocacy Act, the Substitute Decisions Act and the Consent to Treatment Act - allow, albeit in rather vague language, for Ontarians to set out in advance which medical procedures they would or wouldn’t accept and let’s them name a proxy in case they are incapable of expressing their wishes. 

This vague language - intended to allow patients to customize their wishes - means that writing a living will can prove to be a troubling and confusing experience. 

To aid decision-making, the University of Toronto Centre for Bioethics is offering advice through a “model” living will. 

The centre’s Dr. Peter Singer has geared the “model” to meet Ontario legislation and to offer a guide for anybody who doesn’t know where to begin. 

“We put a lot of detail in the advance directive about states of incompetence people get into, and also the sorts of procedures providers might recommend in those health states.”

Singer sees living wills as an effective tool aiding patients to control their own health care.

“Unless the doctor is a longstanding friend it’s hard to know what patients want. As a practicing doctor, I have run into an incompetent person where their family member has no idea what sort of wishes the person would have wanted. The goal of a living will is to provide the personal care the patient would want.”

But there is a danger. Dr. Singer urges the need for informed and detailed language in a living will. 

“If I have a couple minutes to make a decision I need a document that gives me a lot of confidence that this person wouldn’t want this treatment.”

In an emergency, the doctor might not even know of the living will’s existence. Dr. Singer advises giving a copy to your family doctor, lawyer, or proxy, and keep one with you at all times. When so-called “smart” health cards come along, Dr. Singer would like to see the living will recorded on the magnetic strip along with other health information. 


Monday
Mar272017

Specialists want cancer treatments universally available

 

By David South

Today’s Seniors (Canada), December 1993

A newly-formed group representing cancer doctors says it is fed up with the inhumane and bureaucratic approach to cancer care in Ontario. 

Dr. Shailendra Verma of Access to Equal Cancer Care in Ontario (AECCO) says he’s had enough. 

“My group has served the government notice that we’re fighting on our patients’ behalf,” says Verma, who faces gut-wrenching quandaries every day in his growing Ottawa practice. “In a public health system, I’m damned if I’m going to be divided into giving one set of patients a Cadillac treatment and the other Hyundai-type treatment; I don’t think that’s why we have a public health system.”

Verma says cutbacks to health care funding have meant that doctors must leap increasingly high hurdles to get the drugs their patients need. 

In jeopardy

While chemotherapy drugs administered in hospitals are still free, he says the important drugs necessary for patient comfort and treatment effectiveness are in jeopardy. 

These drugs were once free under the Ontario Drug Benefit Plan (ODBP), but now their status is tenuous. One drug, GCSF - which is crucial in helping patients between treatments of chemotherapy - is now listed under Section 8 of the ODBP and requires doctors to plead with the government each time for coverage. Often the bureaucracy moves so slowly that the course of chemotherapy is seriously disrupted, Verma says. 

“As an oncologist I’m particularly interested in ensuring everyone has access to all treatment. I think we are at a very sensitive crossroads. Over the last three or four decades we’ve developed certain treatments for diseases that more often kill than cure. And now we are at a point where we’ve got new treatments that can make the older treatments more effective. Or we’ve got brand new treatments that we are hoping to apply, and the one thing that is holding us back is cost.”

Cost

“The decisions are not based on science, they’re based on cost. It would not be an issue if treatments cost a penny a shot.”

Verma says colleagues can’t introduce some new drugs because the costs would be too high to offer it to everyone. So no one gets it.

“We have patients who walk in and say they would like to pay for it,” continues Verma. “Ethically, as a physician do you allow a patient to pay for it while sitting next to a similar patient who can’t afford it?”


Sunday
Mar262017

Psychiatric care lacking for institutionalised seniors

 

Don Weitz wears a T-shirt bluntly saying, “Fry rice - not brains.”

By David South

Today’s Seniors (Canada), November 1992

Seniors who live in nursing homes and homes for the aged are receiving an inadequate amount of psychiatric care, according to a study conducted by Toronto’s Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care. 

Dr. David Conn, director of psychiatry at Baycrest and an author of the report, says action must be taken to remedy this situation, since at least 80 per cent of elderly long-term care residents suffer from some form of mental disorder. 

The issue of psychiatric care for seniors is complex. There are many, often strongly-held, opinions about the nature of this care and what measures will genuinely improve the mental well-being of seniors in institutions. 

According to The Senior Citizens’ Consumer Alliance for Long-Care Reform, Ontario has the highest rate of institutionalisation of seniors in the world, with 7.5 per cent of seniors over the age of 65 and 15 per cent over 75 in institutions. The Alliance demanded in its reforms in Ontario that seniors’ mental health problems be taken more seriously and be included in any assessment for care. 

Baycrest’s report surveyed 1,148 medical directors and nursing directors in over 500 nursing homes and homes for the aged across Ontario. The 601 who responded reported that 37 per cent of their residents received no psychiatric care, while only 12 per cent received more than five hours per month. The most common psychiatric problems under treatment were depression, agitation, wandering and physical aggression. 

“Recognition of significant mental disorders in nursing homes is a recent phenomenon because geriatric psychiatry is a relatively new field,” says Dr. Conn. “The usual approach has been to reach for the prescription pad. We know now that antidepressants have been underused and tranquillizers overused.

“To deliver effective psychiatric care requires more than just psychiatrists - teams of psychiatric nurses can also be involved. Hopefully the staff of these institutions will become better educated as a result of this report.”

Dr. Kenneth Shulman, head of psychiatry at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, feels the worst neglect occurs in private rest homes. 

“There is general lack of accountability when it comes to geriatric psychiatric services.” Schulman advocates a coordinated, comprehensive regional network of services. 

Dr. Conn is sensitive to reports of sexual, physical and mental abuse of residents in some institutions. He says staff as well as residents of institutions can benefit from psychiatric consultations. “If more psychiatric consultants were available, the staff could also receive help in working out their problems,” he says. “Unfortunately the fee-for-service system doesn’t include paying for visiting staff.

“Being in an institution is not easy for anyone. It often means being apart from family, living with strangers, loss of freedom and having to live by the institution’s timetable.”

One of the most controversial of psychiatric treatments is electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). ECT involves placing electrodes on the sedated patient’s head and passing 100 to 175 volts of electricity into one of the lobes of the brain to induce grand mal seizure and coma. 

Opponents of ECT say the procedure can cause memory loss and confusion, and in some cases proves fatal. A 1985 Ontario government task force report recommended against using ECT in certain cases: “For patients whose work requires a clear and precise memory, ECT is probably contraindicated.”

But many other sources say that while ECT has been abused in the past and, like many other medical procedures, may not be a pretty sight, it is sometimes effective in combating depression. 

Dr. Conn confirms that the controversial procedure is still being used on seniors. “ECT is used on very depressed people,” he says. “It is a hospital-based service. The patient is admitted to a psychiatric unit of the hospital. We do it at Baycrest. It is only a last resort and has often been life-saving.”

Don Weitz, a senior citizen and spokesperson for Resistance Against Psychiatry, doesn’t mince words about what he says is the adverse effects of electroshock therapy and psychiatric practice in general. He wears a T-shirt bluntly saying, “Fry rice - not brains.”

“We have known about the adverse effects of shock for years,” says Weitz. “Research from the ‘40s and ‘50s was very clear that there was brain damage.

“What doctors mean by improvement is in fact post-injury euphoria - the brain will overcompensate with giddiness, and this only lasts for two to four weeks. Doctors seldom test people for more than two or three months afterwards.”

“What we know for sure is that within the institutions, they would rather give drugs or shock than talk to seniors. I think this should be called elder abuse - what else could it be? Is it such a mystery why people are depressed in institutions where they are abused? Psychiatrists have a vested interest in billing OHIP for pushing the button.”

But Dr. Shulman disagrees with blaming the atmosphere of institutions. “It is simplistic to think that the environment is responsible for aggressiveness or other problems,” he says. “These people are cognitively impaired - it could be medication-related or something else. These are complicated issues.”

For any nursing home workers who want further advice about psychiatry, Baycrest has produced a “Jargon-free” guide called Practical Psychiatry in the Nursing Home. 


Friday
Mar242017

Private firms thrive as NDP ‘reinvents’ medicare

By David South

Today’s Seniors (Canada), August 1993

Many of today’s seniors fought for Canada’s internationally-admired public health system. But more and more people are becoming worried that the combination of health care reform, funding cutbacks and free trade is fuelling the growth of a second tier of private medical services serving the well off. 

The provincial government sees things differently, arguing Ontarians no longer expect government to pay for everything and rather than eroding medicare, the NDP is reinventing it. 

Whichever way one looks at it, private insurance companies, homecare providers, labs and other services designed to make money are becoming more and more involved in the health care business. 

Operating in the territory outside the guidelines of the 1984 Canada Health Act - which sets out the principles of medicare for the federal government to enforce - the private sector has room to expand, at the same time as OHIP coverage is scaled back from more and more services. 

Janet Maher, whose Ontario Health Coaltion (OHC) represents doctors, nurses and other health care workers, worries for the future of medicare. 

“A number of things like accomodation services - laundry, food services - are in the grey area of the Canada Health Act,” says Maher. “So with all these fees that are being introduced, by the strict letter of the law, there is no way to stop them. But as far as we are concerned the spirit of the Act isn’t being observed.”

In its current reforms, the government of Ontario is emphasizing paramedical professions like midwives who fall outside the CHA and aren’t covered by OHIP. The turn to community-based services means that people have to rely more on services and providers that aren’t covered under the CHA. 

Maher says privatizing accomodation services is a recent phenomenon, the result of hospitals finding creative ways to trim their budgets. 

“It’s a new area that hospitals are taking bids on,” she says. “The other thing around the accomodation services is that because they are not categorized, strictly speaking, as health care services, none of this is exempted in the Free Trade Agreement from U.S. competition.”

A recent report by two British Columbia researchers tries to put together this complex puzzle. Jackie Henwood and Colleen Fuller of the 7,500-member Health Sciences Association of British Columbia recently charged that a combination of free trade and budget-slashing governments is eroding the universality of medicare and ushering in a two-tier system. 

Fuller and Henwood identify the Free Trade Agreement as the culprit. While the health care industry created more jobs than any other sector of the Canadian economy between 1984 and 1991, they point out the job growth has been concentrated in the private sector since free trade was implemented in 1989. And they expect worse under the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). 

“NAFTA will accelerate trends towards a privatized, non-union and corporate-dominated system of health care in Canada.”

One provision of the Free Trade Agreement has also made it possible for U.S. companies to compete against Canadian firms in health care. Chapter 14, “health-care facilities management services”, allows wide-open competition. 

Under NAFTA, provisions will bind all levels of government to consider for-profit health care companies on both sides of the border on equal footing with public providers when bidding for services, and entitles them to compensation if they can prove to an arbitration board they’ve been wronged. 

“That represents a substantial encroachment on the democratic right of local, provincial and federal governments to make decisions,” says Cathleen Connors, who chairs the national wing of OHC, the Canadian Health Coalition. 

It’s this plus health care cutbacks - federal and provincial - that’s resulting in service and job cuts and bed closures in the public sector and an increase in privatization, say Henwood and Fuller. These opportunities have not gone unnoticed by private companies south of the border. 

One such company is American Medical Security Inc. (AMS) of Green Bay Wisconsin. After hiring Canadian pollsters Angus Reid to do a survey, AMS saw a profitable market in offering American hospital insurance to frustrated Canadians awaiting surgery. Sixteen per cent of those polled said they wanted this service; that was enough for AMS. 

“One thing that comes across loud and clear is that Canadians for the most part are happy,” says spokesperson Carrie Galbraith. “They know they are taken care of during an emergency. But they are willing to pay a little extra if they need care.”

So far, AMS offers its plan to Ontario, B.C. and Manitoba, with Toronto its best market. Galbraith says plans are in the works to expand to all of Canada except the territories. 

Unfortunately, like most private health plans, AMS cuts its losses by avoiding what Galbraith calls “adverse selection” - anybody with a known serious health problem need not apply. 

Here in Ontario, private for-profit home care services take in close to half of all OHIP billings. Many clients pay out of their own pockets for additional services. 

The Ontario health ministry doesn’t keep statistics on the extent of the private home health care sector, says spokesperson Layne Verbeek. But the Ontario Home Health Care Providers’ Association, a trade group, estimates private homecare companies now employ 20,000 and serve more than 100,000. 

“It’s a market situation,” says Henwood. “If the services aren’t available to people within the public sector, they will go outside of it. We’ve seen this in other countries like England, where they had a public system and now have a parallel private system. If you erode a system enough that people get angry, they are going to start to look for alternatives, and the people with the greatest liberty are those with money.”

But in a recent interview, health minister Ruth Grier was adament this scenario wouldn’t be allowed to take place in Ontario. She strongly disagreed that medicare is being weakened due to recent changes, and said the government has actually “reaffirmed its commitment to medicare.”