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On the Third Hand: Medical research

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I really don’t care too much about germs in general, but I’ve always been a sucker for a good end-of-the-world scenario. 

I’ve been writing and posting articles about the Ebola outbreak — for example, this one, in August, in which I noted that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had promised to get a huge team of 50 Ebola care providers to Liberia within, roughly, 30 days — as stories were starting to appear about dogs eating the Ebola corpses rotting on Liberia’s streets.

The general reaction was, “Why are you blogging about a virus that kills some people in Liberia? Who cares?”

On the one hand, to some extent, OK, that was true then and is true now. Public health officials likely will get a grip on Ebola. It seems to be a little more infectious than they thought, but, OK, everything in life costs more and takes longer than we expect. 

But, on the other hand, there are plenty of nasty killers where Ebola came from. Take, for example, our old friend influenza. In 1918, the flu pandemic was so deadly that it was killing the life insurance company workers as they were trying to process the other victims’ death claims.

Right now, health insurers are the midst of a successful, totally justified effort to point out that forcing well-insured people with Hepatitis C to pay about $84,000 for a life-saving drug regiment to make the biotech investors’ return-on-equity projections work out is just wrong.

On the third hand, around the same time, actuaries at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services pointed out that spending on basic health research is on track to increase just 0.1 percent. Research spending may grow more slowly than any other type of health spending CMS tracks.

It seems possible that some of the research could be performed more efficiently, or on better selected topics. But we clearly need more research, immediately, on topics such as making sure we really understand how Ebola spreads and why there are so many people with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in Taif, Saudi Arabia, right now.

Making commercial health insurance plans pick up the tab seems like the wrong way to pay for the research, but then maybe plans should be more visible in efforts to figure out better ways to fund necessary work.