To understand something about the spiraling cost of health care in the United States, we might begin with a typical conundrum: Imagine a 60-something man — a nonsmoker, overweight, with diabetes — who has just survived a heart attack. Perhaps he had an angioplasty, with the placement of a stent, to open his arteries. The doctor's job is to keep the vessels open. She has two choices of medicines to reduce the risk for a second heart attack. There's Plavix, a tried-and-tested blood thinner, that prevents clot formation; the generic version of the drug costs as little as 25 cents a pill. And there's Brilinta, a newer medicine that is also effective in clot prevention; it costs about $6.50 a pill — 25 times as much.
Brilinta is admittedly more effective than Plavix — by all of 2 percentage points. In a yearlong trial of 18,600 patients, 10 percent died from vascular causes, heart attack or stroke on Brilinta, while about 12 percent did on Plavix. Should the doctor prescribe the best possible medicine, assuming that the man has private health insurance that will pay the bulk of the costs? Or should she try to conserve health care costs by prescribing the cheaper medicine that is nearly as good? And consider this: If the cost to you was the same — you have maxed out your co-pay and will end up with the same out-of-pocket expenditure — would you agree to take the slightly inferior drug to benefit the system as a whole? You've just had a heart attack, for God's sake. You pay thousands of dollars for health insurance. Is it fair to ask you to bear the slightly increased risk to enable some broader social good?