Prenatal Testing and Human Capabilities

By Aobo Dong

According to Vardit Ravitsky’s paper on “Shifting Landscape of Prenatal Testing,” there exist two competing rationales for prenatal screenings for severe disabling conditions like Down syndrome. The “reproductive-autonomy” rationale justifies screening by invoking a woman’s individual autonomy. In contrast, the “public health rationale” justifies pre-natal screening and termination due to a Down syndrome diagnosis by invoking the costly public health expenditures that must be spent on children born with these disabilities – resembling a utilitarian calculation that minimizes pain and maximizes pleasure for society as a whole. According to Ravisky, the public health rationale creates social pressure that incentivizes women and their families to make the decision to terminate. Thus, the public health rationale is heavily pro-termination, while the individual autonomy rationale could lead women to make decisions in either way. What she proposes as a solution is to combat the public health rationale to allow women to make autonomous decisions free of social pressures, and establish a stronger “informed consent” procedure that better informs the implications of pre-natal screenings and Down syndrome so that women could make the best possible decision for themselves. This blog post will shed more light on this issue by invoking Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities approach to human rights.

A central feature of the capabilities approach is “adaptive preference” that measures the relative success in achieving the 10 core capabilities cross nation-states and social classes. Nussbaum is aware of the fact that “individuals vary greatly in their need for resources and in their ability to convert resources into valuable functioning.” Therefore, it is not even adequate to provide an equal amount of educational resources for one student with Down syndrome and another without any learning disability. Nussbaum would argue that the child needs something even more than a formal education, a proposal that could be much more costly than a regular education alone. She would not assume that a student with the condition must have a low self-worth; instead, she would consider the factors in the child’s social environment that may have caused such low self-esteem, and direct resources to improve the child’s own sense of worth and maximize her future potentials in living a fully human life. This is consistent with capability 7B (respect), which stresses their ability to “be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others.” Continue reading

Health Care Sharing Ministries (HCSMs) after Tax-Penalty Repeal

By Aobo Dong

The passage of the Republican tax reform bill affects the health care industry in ways that might be confusing and unpredictable for tens of millions of Americans. Due to political rhetoric and inaccurate portrayal of the bill, it seems as if the Individual Mandate – an essential element in the ACA – has been fully repealed. Nonetheless, as Health Affairs rightly points out, Section 5000A still remains in the statute to require “minimal essential coverage” for all individuals. Therefore, although the tax bill repealed the tax penalty for not having insurance coverage, the law still technically mandates individuals to acquire health insurance. Moreover, the tax penalty repeal will not take effect until the 2019 tax year, so individuals who are uninsured for more than 2 months in the 2018 tax year may still be liable for paying the tax penalty, unless future laws and regulations, or an executive order from Trump, indicates otherwise.

Under the new regulatory landscape, what could be some potential repercussions for Health Care Sharing Ministries (HCSMs)? These ministries, largely run by evangelical Christians who believe in the merit of private cost sharing, have been benefiting from the Individual Mandate since the inception of the ACA. Under Section 5000A, HCSM members are exempt from paying the tax penalty. The dearth of legal exemptions available and the widespread dislike of Obamacare among white evangelical communities in America likely fueled the rapid growth of HCSMs in recent years. Members pay their monthly “shares” to each other to cover health insurance expanses, without going through a central insurance or governmental agency for redistribution. Continue reading

The Illusion of Choice in Health Care Consumerism

By Aobo Dong

The rhetoric of “choice” has been pervasive in U.S. health care reforms and the consumerist health care culture for a long time. The idea is that giving patients more choices over doctors and insurance plans would increase competition in the industry and consequently improve the quality of health care patients receive. However, Allison Hoffman made a convincing case debunking this seemingly intuitive idea in this week’s HLS health law workshop. She argued that reform efforts aimed at increasing consumer choice often fail to empower patients to make better health care choices, and instead, create a wasteful market bureaucracy that is anathema to free market ideals. Her argument reminds me of one of my earlier blog posts on U.S. drug prices, where I compared insurance companies to the Central Planner in a socialist economy. Indeed, there are ironically many institutions and features in the so-called market-driven U.S. health care system that resemble authoritarian and technocratic practices that are directly against the principles of a laissez-faire health care economy.

I will expand Professor Hoffman’s argument by making a few additional points. First, her presentation discusses a number of revealing ways in which the market-based competition creates a false sense of choice in health care. Even Obamacare, which is supposed to offer patients more choices in the Exchange, fails to transcend the falsity of consumer choice. Most patients do not make the best available choice, even when they’re “nudged” by experts in the decision-making process. I’d like to also point out that even if consumers are capable of making the best choice for themselves, whether by thinking with perfect rationality or by accepting “expert opinions,” the choice they ultimately make could still be suboptimal or even disastrous. To understand why this might be the case, it is important to realize that the target population for Obamacare is the minority of people who do not have adequate employer-sponsored plans. Thus, many people enrolled in Obamacare may not have stable jobs and income levels. Nonetheless, the mechanism that determines how much premium for which one qualifies is predicated on an estimation of that individual’s projected annul earnings – a number that is hard to know in advance for those without stable income levels. Hence, a person who made the “right choice” by selecting a silver plan with only $100 monthly premium after receiving a $900 subsidy to cover a $1,000 plan at the beginning of a year may find herself owing the federal government thousands of dollars at the end of the tax year, if she happens to end up with a much higher income level. Had she known the future outcome, she would have chosen a less expensive plan to begin with, but either choice would be a gamble for her. This arbitrariness must be attended to in future health reforms. Continue reading

Elderly Care in the Age of Machine and Automation

By Aobo Dong

Would you be willing to accept a professional care-giving robot as a replacement to a human companion when your loved ones are far away from you? During last week’s HLS Health Law Workshop, Professor Belinda Bennett provided a great overview on the imminent age of machine and automation and the legal and ethical challenges the new era entails, especially in health care law and bioethics. After discussing three areas of potential health law complications, Professor Bennett argued that the field of health law is undergoing a transition from the “bio” to the “digital” or “auto,” and that instead of playing a catching-up game with rapidly evolving technologies, more focus should be placed on learning from past and existing laws and regulations in order to meet new demands from the “second machine age.” However, I wish to propose a closely-related but alternative paradigm, that is, using the issues raised by new technologies as a vehicle for improving existing laws and reshaping social norms that once made existing laws inadequate or flawed. I will elaborate on my point through the author’s own example of elderly care.

Despite the fact that the author advocates a revisionist approach for thinking about health law and technology, her paradigm is still about laws serving the needs and solving concerns of the tech industry intersected with health care. I wonder whether it would be productive to view the issue from the opposite direction, that is, how could new technologies and the challenges they raise inform us about existing laws (revealing blind spots or providing opportunity to improve unjust/unfair/discriminatory laws). Viewed this way, we could not only strengthen connections between past laws and future technologies, but also be guided by a clearer sense of how future legal reforms and regulations could redress past neglect and meet new challenges. Continue reading

From Westworld to U.S. Prisons: Reframing the Debate on the Right to Health

Is there a “Right to Health?” For many countries in the world, including Latin American countries like Brazil, the answer is easily in the affirmative. Similarly, in the hit HBO show Westworld, the “hosts” (androids on the verge of discovering consciousness) also possess a right to health. How so? Despite atrocious cruelty the human “guests” constantly inflict upon them, the company that runs Westworld maintains a highly extensive, functional “universal health care system” that employs the latest medical technologies for androids to take care of any health problems of all damaged hosts. The efficiency of the system is breathtaking: a cowboy host with 20 bullet wounds and a broken arm could be fully restored overnight; when the sun rises the next morning, the host returns to the simulated reality as if nothing happened.

Of course, the right to health in Westworld is not a result of democratic deliberations or judicial activism that invokes the UDHR or related treaty obligations. Instead, it originates in the sheer necessity of running a seamless alternate reality that requires good maintenance of the hosts, whom the Board depend on to please the guests and maximize the company’s profits. In other words, the physical wellbeing of the hosts is intrinsically tied to the functioning of the entire Westworld machinery and its profitability. Fixing them quickly and adequately allows them to return to their respective, pre-determined roles in a complex narrative with countless plots and subplot twists meticulously designed by their human masters. Continue reading

The U.S. Drug Price Catastrophe and the Central Planner

By Aobo Dong

If you are fortunate enough to have an insurance plan with extensive coverage and low co-pays for prescription drugs, chances are you may not be overly concerned with the U.S. drug price catastrophe. For millions of Americans without such a plan, getting the much-needed prescribed medicine often involves frustrating multi-player exchanges between the pharmacy, the insurance company, and the doctor, due to complications such as drug pricing and pre-authorization.

The NYT recently launched an investigation into a simple question: “Why Are Drug Prices So High?” One surprising revelation from the study is that deep drug pricing problems may have been contributing to the ongoing opioid crisis, as insurers restrict patient access to less addictive alternatives. For instance, UnitedHealthcare stopped covering Butrans – a drug that had successfully helped Alisa Erkes to ease her excruciating abdominal pain for two years – just to lower its own expenses. Instead, Alisa’s doctor had to put her on long-acting morphine – a drug in a higher category for risk of abuse and dependence than Butrans. However, since it costs the insurance company only $29 a month, UnitedHealthcare covered it with no questions asked. Continue reading

Is Your Medical Bill “Eligible for Sharing?” New research on Christian Health Care Sharing Ministries (HCSMs)

By Aobo Dong

As the future of Affordable Care Act (ACA) hangs in the balance amid political deadlock in Washington, more Americans are signing up for Christian health care sharing ministries (HCSMs) – a growing alternative to traditional health insurance. Instead of paying a monthly premium to insurance companies, most members of HCSMs write monthly checks directly to other members in need. If you are on the receiving end, chances are you may be surprised with a wave of letters, flowers, and prayer cards wishing you well. However, not all medical bills are “eligible for sharing.” Most HCSMs exclude pre-existing conditions, as well as any conditions or medical expenses caused by “unbiblical lifestyle” involving using drugs/alcohol or having sex outside of heterosexual marriage. Also, if you are an adopted child with disabilities or an undocumented immigrant, some ministries explicitly exclude you from participating at all. Continue reading