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Dialysis and the Problem of Unintended Consequences

Posted Apr 11 2011 12:18am

peritoneal A recent New York Times article by Gina Kolata highlighted the debate surrounding dialysis as an end-of-life treatment.  In reading the article and surfing the internet for counter-arguments, I found two points of interest.

According to the Medicare ESRD Network Organizations Manual , Section 299I of the Social Security Amendments of 1972, Pub. Law 92-603, which “created the National End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) Program … [and] extended Medicare coverage to individuals with ESRD who require either dialysis or transplantation to maintain life.”  In addition, depending on your perspective, Sec. 299I requires/limits the entitlements for/to individuals under the age of 65 who have insurance coverage (remember this age and insurance coverage part it will be important later in the discussion).

By the time the legislation was adopted in 1972, only 10,000 individuals were being dialyzed in the country and only 20,000 to 25,000 were considered candidates for the procedure.  Section 299I was estimated to cost $250 million over the first four years.  Now, according to the N.Y. Times, about 400,000 people will undergo dialysis at an estimated cost of $40 billion to $50 billion in this year alone.

Kolata argues that this law was intended “to keep young and middle-aged people alive and productive” and has had the unintended consequence of financing dialysis treatment for (primarily elderly) individuals who are too sick to benefit from the treatment.  She explains:

When Congress established the entitlement to pay for kidney patients in October 1972… [Congress expected] that most of those patients would be healthy except for their failed kidneys and under age 54.

Now… More than a third of the patients are 65 or older, and they account for about 42 percent of the costs. People over 75 make up the fastest-growing group of dialysis patients. And most elderly dialysis patients have other serious diseases like diabetes, heart failure, stroke and even advanced dementia. One-third of them have four or more chronic conditions.

plugged_into_dialysis Others, however, would argue that Sec. 299I has not benefited the elderly because they were already entitled to Medicare coverage prior to its enactment.  In the “ Dialysis from the sharp end of the needle ” blog, Bill Peckham writes in response to Kolata’s argument:

No no no. Dialyzors who are “old and have other medical problems” have access to Medicare due to age or disability , “patients who take advantage of the law” are few: only about 25,000 people [out of about 417,000] have access to Medicare as a consequence of Section 299I of the Social Security Amendments of 1972.

Well…  According to Kaiser , the source of Peckham’s figures, only 5.8% of Medicare enrollees with ESRD directly benefit from Section 299I.  But what about indirect benefits? A comprehensive history of Section 299I can be found in Origins of the Medicare Kidney Disease Entitlement: The Social Security Amendments of 1972, a chapter in Biomedical Politics .  Richard A. Rettig writes:

It was presumed that the benefit existed for the elderly, however, because a Medicare benefit could not be established for those under 65 and not be available for the elderly. In fact, very few elderly persons were being dialized at the time and none were receiving transplants.  Although the Bureau of Health Insurance had answered several inquiries in the previous year, the nature and extent of coverage for the elderly had not been clarified.

The entitlement for those under the age of 65 extends from the third month after “a course of renal dialysis is initiated” until a year after the person has a renal transplant or ends the course of dialysis.  This section could have been read to provide an entitlement to dialysis and renal transplant solely to those under the age of 65, or it could be interpreted to create a near universal entitlement to such treatments.

It seems that President Nixon’s administration read Section 299I according the latter interpretation, because in his statement on the Signing of the Social Security Amendment of 1972 Nixon said , “it extends Medicare coverage for kidney transplants and renal dialysis.”

“Clearly, when the program was initiated in the 1970s, the hope and expectation was that this program would return otherwise healthy people back into society so they could work and be productive,” said Dr. Manjula Kurella Tamura, a kidney specialist at Stanford. But, she added, “dialysis at the end of life is a different sort of treatment.”

A second important aspect of the article is its focus on end-of-life care.  Even Peckham concedes that, “caring for the elderly is expensive and aggressive treatment may not always be in the interest of the ill. That is a serious discussion our electorate should have but has not been able to have.”

cycler The article highlights new clinical practice guidelines produced by the Renal Physicians Association designed to promote, through shared decision-making and informed consent, “medical management without dialysis.”  Particularly concerning is that the provision of dialysis gives patients false hope of survival.  According to the NY Times:

Recent studies have found that dialysis does not prolong life for many elderly people with other serious chronic illnesses. One study found that the procedure’s main effect is to increase the chances that such patients will die in the hospital rather than at home.

Yet, a 78-year-old woman is quoted as saying, “I go to dialysis because I want to live.  I want dialysis.”  Although he doctors explained that dialysis would not necessarily prolong her life, she chose aggressive treatment because, “.”  This anecdotal story raises a HUGE informed consent problem because it appears that the patient may not have understood the risks and benefits of undergoing dialysis.

Key to the decision to forego, commence, or withdraw dialysis is a properly consent. The above guidelines state that certain patients, including those age 75 years and older, those with high comorbidity scores, those with marked functional impairment, or those with severe chronic malnutrition, “should be informed that dialysis may not confer a survival advantage or improve functional status over medical management without dialysis and that dialysis entails significant burdens that may detract from their quality of life.”


The ESRD program has provided life-saving dialysis to many people.  However, as with many other tests and treatments performed in the last year of life, it is important to ensure that patients (or their legal decision-makers) are properly informed about the risks and benefits of all options, including palliative care, at the end of life.

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