OK, Let's Talk About Death Panels

by Jonathan Cohn | March 25, 2011

Critics of the Affordable Care Act keep saying health care reform will kill people. Perhaps they should talk to Dallas Wiens.

Wiens, 25, lost most of his face in a freak work accident. Earlier this week, doctors in Boston performed an experimental face transplant. The Defense Department and the hospital underwrote the surgery. (The Pentagon hopes the know-how can someday help wounded soldiers.) But Wiens will depend on expensive immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of his life.

The Affordable Care Act will allow Wiens to pay for those drugs. For now, it allows him to enroll in his father’s plan, because he is under 26. Later, when the law is fully in place, it will guarantee him access to a comprehensive insurance policy, regardless of his pre-existing condition. And it’s the ability to finance these treatments that enabled Wiens to get the surgery in the first place, according to Brian Beutler:

...without that coverage, Weins wouldn't have been able to afford the expensive immunosuppressant drugs that he must take for the rest of his life to prevent his body from rejecting his new face. Patients have to demonstrate that they will be able to afford the anti-rejection drugs to qualify for a transplant.

Beutler tells the tale of Wiens and some other patients in similar situations in a new story for Talking Points Memo. These stories are inevitably complicated and Beutler, to his credit, goes into those complications. Among other things, patients with severe illness and without formal insurance sometimes have options, whether it’s getting coverage through other government programs or simply relying on charity. (As Beutler notes, Wiens will likely qualify for Medicare coverage once he turns 26, because of his disability.)

But the broader point holds: Given the substantial evidence that thousands of people die every year because they don't have health insurance, the conversation about “death panels” has it exactly backwards.

Repealing the Affordable Care Act, as the law’s critics advocate, would likely mean more people die. And among those could be people who have gotten medical procedures that require them to take expensive medications for the rest of their lives--and suddenly find themselves with no way to pay for them.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/jonathan-cohn/85768/wiens-transplant-health-reform-repeal-death-panel