“Unless there is a public outcry, I don’t see any changes.”
Alabama Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh on passing a Medicaid budget that reduced payments to physicians, hospitals, and would end all “optional services” including home health programs, hospice, outpatient dialysis, adult eyeglasses and PACE, a program to help some elderly people avoid having to be admitted to nursing homes
How do you create a public outcry? That is the question for the 500 dialysis patients who rely on dialysis to continue living.
Dialysis is a funny thing. When Medicare and Medicaid were established in 1965, renal replacement therapy (known by lay folks as dialysis) was known to save lives. People who had lost kidney function from diabetes, polycystic disease, or some other malady, unless they were fortunate enough to be a part of an experimental protocol, would die from a build-up of toxins in their body. If they were enrolled in a protocol or had the good fortune of living near a place that was experimenting with renal replacement therapy, they would live.
In the late 1960’s, a report came out that identified renal replacement therapy as established as opposed to experimental. In addition, because of the “experiments” funded through Medicare, the number of people on dialysis increased by a factor of 10 (from 1,000 to 10,000) and the number of physicians performing dialysis increased dramatically. This set the stage for the hearings in the 1970 where this testimony was heard:
I am 43 years old, married for 20 years, with two children ages 14 and 10. I was a salesman until a couple of months ago until it became necessary for me to supplement my income to pay for the dialysis supplies. I tried to sell a non-competitive line, was found out,and was fired. Gentlemen, what should I do? End it all and die? Sell my house for which I worked so hard, and go on welfare? Should I go into the hospital under my hospitalization policy, then I cannot work? Please tell me. If your kidneys failed tomorrow, wouldn’t you want the opportunity to live? Wouldn’t you want to see your children grow up? (U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Ways and Means, 1971b)
Following this, the house and the senate passed and President Nixon signed a bill creating a dialysis benefit for those eligible for Medicare.
Fast forward to today. In America we have 400,000 people on dialysis. They have to have their blood cleansed 3 times a week. If they do, they can live a relatively normal life. If they don’t, they can develop shortness of breath (pulmonary edema), feeling poorly (uremia), or a high potassium level (hyperkalemia) and when it gets bad enough that they’re deemed to be near death, they are given dialysis via the emergency room.
Most people on routine dialysis have it paid for by Medicare. Who gets it on the federal nickel? To quote CMS, these folks are eligible:
- You’ve worked the required amount of time under Social Security, the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB), or as a government employee.
- You’re already getting or are eligible for Social Security or Railroad Retirement benefits.
- You’re the spouse or dependent child of a person who meets either of the requirements listed above.
If you don’t meet these criteria, and require renal replacement therapy, you pay cash (between $52,000 and $73,000 per year), obtain coverage from Medicaid, wait in a state of anticipation until you need emergent dialysis (costing about $300,000 a year as a strategy), or die.
Alabama would be the first state to take it away from ALL Medicaid recipients. Texas does not pay through Medicaid but instead pays through a separate fund. They were able to take away dialysis from undocumented folks. Because of the pesky EMTALA laws passed by President Reagan, hospitals are required to provide EMERGENCY treatment. The consequence? A bunch of folks who hang out at the hospital every day getting their blood drawn to see if they win the emergency dialysis lottery.
So, back to my original question. You see, Alabama is $100 million short on their Medicaid budget. On a budget of about $6 billion, that would seem like a small number. Alabama legislators, though, are ready to make a stand. The 500 Alabama citizens on dialysis will either die or spend the rest of their days hanging out next to the emergency room so that we can prove the value of “low taxes” unless there is a “public outcry.” How do you stop folks entrusted with the health and welfare of the citizens of Alabama if they are able to murder 500 people to prove a point? I can’t figure it out.