Thursday, January 7, 2010

Tragic Choices at Grady Hospital (3) - Brinksmanship with Human Lives

Grady Hospital has done the right thing, as I predicted it would in a post last week (here):
Clearly, a safety net provider is accountable for using the funds it receives in the most efficient manner possible. But we the public can't be allowed to turf our moral accountability to the Gradys of the world. We the public created safety net providers to care for the underserved, not to take on the burden of our sins in the manner of Jesus. I believe Grady is right to provoke a crisis over dialysis services. If some of its patients are still in limbo on January 3, Grady can't simply set them loose. It will have to continue to provide for them. But it should keep pointing the finger at its funding sources, with the message that Winston Churchill gave in World War II - "Give us the tools, and we will [do] the job," along with this corollary message - "If you choose not to give us the tools, acknowledge that you are the killers, and take responsibility for your decisions!

In his ongoing series detailing the human meaning of the Grady saga, Kevin Sack of the New York Times tells us that Grady has extended dialysis coverage for another month for 50 uninsured patients, mostly undocumented immigrants, for another month "to help give patients more time to make long-term arrangements," according to Matt Gove, who has the thankless job of speaking for Grady.

Grady is still hoping that the patients will take an active role in figuring out what to do. According to Gove “it should be clear to the patients that there’s a responsibility on their side to continue trying to find a long-term plan because at some point this care won’t be available.”

Many of the patients from Latin American countries refuse to return, since they believe - correctly - that access to dialysis of comparable quality will not be there for them. For some, the explicit plan is to go to an emergency room - quite possibly at Grady - whenever funding for dialysis at Fresenius, the private vendor Grady has contracted with, ends.

No one is suggesting that Fresenius will have any obligation when Grady stops paying. That's the difference between being a safety net provider and a private enterprise.

There are three main ways to approach the problem:

  1. Send the undocumented patients back to their country of origin, let them fend for themselves with whatever help the country provides, and hope for the best. (Given the national anti-undocumented attitudes, there will be a lot of support for this option. The ethical rationale for this position is that each country is a fully separate entity responsible for its citizens. Radically different standards of health care are unfortunate, but that's the way it is. Who said life on the planet is fair?)

  2. Leave Grady with the problem, which is what's happening right now. (Mother Theresa and her Missionaries of Charity could care for the dying in Calcutta as long as they had nuns who volunteered to do the work and a space in which to do it. Grady's situation is different. Dialysis was costing it $50,000 per patient per year. In its finite budget Grady has to choose which needs to serve. It can't meet them all.

    From an ethical perspective, this is the least justifiable alternative. Grady is a public institution, funded by a combination of county, state, and federal funds. We can't make Grady responsible for the choices we force onto it by our budgetary decisions.

  3. Address the situation internationally as part of global public health. (This won't be easy, but it's the right way to go. If our national policy is to send the undocumented patients back to their country of origin, we should work with those countries to solve the immediate needs of the individuals, but more importantly, to improve health and economic standards overall. If we continue to pretend that nation-states are self-contained islands, we'll just have more and more Grady-like crises. Sadly, this is what we're likely to do for the forseeable future.)

The U.S. created its end-stage-renal-disease program under Medicare when patients on dialysis were brought to Congress to be seen as individuals. That's what Kevin Sack is doing through his series of stories. (He's my candidate for the next round of Pulitzers!) There's no sign yet that we the public, through the higher levels of government, are paying attention. Perhaps that will happen when the one-month extension Grady has created, or the one after that, comes due.


Unknown said...

My name is Annie Smith and I am the assistant editor of I am contacting you today in hopes of developing a relationship with your website; we have seen your site and think your content is great. is a purely informational site dedicated to the general Public.

I hope you show some interest in building relationship, please contact me at

Jim Sabin said...

Hi Annie -

I looked at the Medicalschool website - thanks for telling me about it. I see that it's pitched largely to students contemplating medical school, and perhaps to current students as well. I've found that some of the medical students I teach are interested in the kinds of issues I discuss in these posts. It's important for physicians to grapple with the underlying ethics of health, health care, and the health care system (locally, nationally, and internationally), so the more these issues are in the media and the curriculum, the better.

I'll follow up with you on email.