Dialysis

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In 1972, after a month of deliberation, Congress launched the nation's most ambitious experiment in universal health care: a change to the Social Security Act that granted comprehensive coverage under Medicare to virtually anyone diagnosed with kidney failure, regardless of age or income.

It was a supremely hopeful moment. Although the technology to keep kidney patients alive through dialysis had arrived, it was still unattainable for all but a lucky few. At one hospital, a death panel -- or "God committee" in the parlance of the time -- was deciding who got it and who didn't. The new program would help about 11,000 Americans, just for starters. For a modest initial price tag of $135 million, it would cover not only their dialysis and transplants, but all of their medical needs. Some consider it the closest that the United States has come to socialized mediNow, almost four decades later, a program once envisioned as a model for a national health care system has evolved into a hulking monster. Taxpayers spend more than $20 billion a year to care for those on dialysis -- about $77,000 per patient, more, by some accounts, than any other nation. Yet the United States continues to have one of the industrialized world's highest mortality rates for dialysis care. Even taking into account differences in patient characteristics, studies suggest that if our system performed as well as Italy's, or France's, or Japan's, thousands fewer patients would die each year.

In a country that regularly boasts about its superior medical system, such results might be cause for outrage. But although dialysis is a lifeline for almost 400,000 Americans, few outside this insular world have probed why a program with such compassionate aims produces such troubling outcomes. Even during a fervid national debate over health care, the state of dialysis garnered little public attention.

Medicare covers two methods of dialysis—hemodialysis and peritoneal dialysis. In hemodialysis, a...
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