Tuesday, May 05, 2009

My CongressCritter Supports Quackery

Health care costs are rising. A Medicare funding crisis is just around the corner. So I was dismayed to find out that John Olver is a co-sponser of the Federal Acupuncture Coverage Act of 2009:
Amends part B (Supplementary Medical Insurance) of title XVIII (Medicare) of the Social Security Act and federal civil service law relating to the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program to cover qualified acupuncturist services.

(from the excellent OpenCongress web site)
It looked for a while like acupuncture actually worked, and, unlike homeopathy (which is a 100%-pure placebo), it seems plausible that sticking needles into your body could work.

But then some researchers started testing "sham acupuncture" -- they just pretended to stick needles into people. And in study after study, they found that sham acupuncture is just as effective as real acupuncture. Acupuncture is a placebo; it makes you feel better because you think it should.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not specifically anti-acupuncture: researchers who have tested surgery for certain types of back and knee pain against "sham surgery" got the same results; you can't tell who got the "real" surgery and who got the fake surgery. "Mainstream" medicine can be just as screwy as "alternative" medicine, and we should hold both to the same standards.

All of which leads me back to the Federal Acupuncture Act. We've got a system where the Government pays for about half of all medical care (mostly through Medicare and Medicaid). I think our medical system would work a lot better if patients were given the money and allowed to spend it on whatever treatment they thought worked best, whether that was acupuncture or aspirin.

Instead, we get Congress-Critters deciding what gets covered and what doesn't. So greedy drug companies, arthroscopic surgeons, and acupuncturists all spend lots of time and money lobbying Congress to get their share of the Medicare pie. Consumers don't care what the various treatment options cost, they just care whether or not a treatment is covered or not, and they trust that the Government wouldn't cover dangerous or bogus treatments. So health care costs rise (because the incentive is more lobbying for more expensive treatments), and dubious practices survive.

Maybe acupuncture is the most effective-for-the-money treatment for (say) lower back pain for people who really, truly believe that thousands of years of traditional Chinese medicine can't possibly be wrong. I think they should be free to spend money on whatever treatment works best (or whatever treatment they think works best) for them, but we need a health care system that exposes them to the costs of their decisions; when faced with a decision between paying $100 for a visit to an acupuncturist or spending $10 for a bottle of pain pills, they might decide that the needles aren't such a good idea after all.


Phil said...

you have no idea what you are talking about. Your arguments are without merit. People like you have been brainwashed by the big pharma companies to make you believe that it is all about the PILL. For the mean time, Chinese live longer and spend much less on the healthcare needs than us.

Gavin Andresen said...

Ummm, Phil, you might want to check your facts.

Googling "life expectancy" takes me to a very useful Wikipedia page, and tells me:

US life expectancy: 78 years
China: 73 years