Britain's National Health Service is no longer in the business of saving lives. The British agency tasked with deciding which treatments the government will cover just ruled that if a life-saving drug costs too much, it shouldn't be prescribed - even if it's the only treatment option.For those familiar with the British agency - disingenuously called the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) - the announcement wasn't surprising. Since its creation in 1999, NICE has been used as a tool for denying cutting-edge medicines to countless patients.
Just a few weeks ago, for example, NICE determined that four breakthrough kidney cancer drugs were too expensive for the British government to cover. And last year, NICE ruled that two treatments for the eye condition macular degeneration were too pricey. While deliberating over the details of that decision, as many as 10,000 patients with the condition may have gone blind.
Despite these horror stories, Congress is trying to create a similar agency right here in the United States. In August, Senators Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) introduced the Comparative Effectiveness Research Act of 2008. It would create a new government body to evaluate the relative effectiveness of different medical treatments.
While conducting side-by-side comparisons of various treatments sounds like a worthwhile endeavor, it will almost certainly be abused for the purposes of saving the government money. When healthcare is financed with the government's finite resources, the government has an interest in cutting corners wherever it can.
That's why Britain is willing to sacrifice lives if medical treatment comes with too high a price tag. Considering that the U.S. government foots more than half the nation's healthcare bill (thanks to Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs), it's all but certain that any U.S. agency tasked comparing medical treatment would eventually have a similar mandate.
Britain's healthcare injustices are atrocious and unnecessary. A nation that refuses to protect the lives of its citizens is not worthy of emulation by the United States. With any luck, U.S. law-makers will come to realize this before it's too late. If they don't, American patients will be much worse off.
Peter J. Pitts is President of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest and a former FDA Associate Commissioner.