Obamacare and Prostate Cancer

  • by: |
  • 05/29/2012
Another deadly taste of ObamaCare
The US Preventive Services Task Force ruled last week that screening for prostate cancer is a waste of money.

Get ready for many more such outrages: This is the agency that will determine which preventive services ObamaCare will require health plans to cover free of charge.

The task force claims that screening all adult men with the PSA (protein-specific antigen) test doesn’t prevent death from the disease. It argues that “the number of men who avoid dying of prostate cancer because of screening after 10 to 14 years is, at best, very small.”

Adding to the “costs” of the test are “false positives” — they tell people they have cancer when they don’t about 10 percent of the time. The task force thinks this problem makes the cost of screening higher than the tiny benefit screening generates for society.

It’s worth analyzing the road to this conclusion, because it tells us a lot about how ObamaCare rations medicine.

First, the task force measures the effect of testing on the death rate from anydisease (all-cause mortality). That’s a bogus benchmark, because, as John Maynard Keynes famously noted, in the long run we all die. In fact, death rates from prostate cancer have dropped 57 percent among men ages 49 to 64 and80 percent among adult men over 75. National Cancer Institute data show that prostate cancers are being detected and treated earlier and that life expectancy is rising as a result.

The task force claims there is no evidence that screening directly reduces prostate cancer. But how, then, did death rates decline, if screening doesn’t work?

It does, of course. As prostate-cancer expert William Catalano notes, PSA screening is why the horror of not diagnosing this cancer until it has metastasized (advanced and spread) has all but disappeared.

The task force states that because the PSA test is imprecise, it will always lead to overdiagnosis. But false positives are a risk of all screening, and the error rate for prostate-cancer screening is no higher than screening for other illnesses or cancers.

Catalano also points out that it’s regular testing — not the test being used — that has likely contributed to raising the odds against the disease.

The task force also claims that the PSA test can’t tell us which tumors to treat. Yet it gives the patient and his doctorstime to figure that out.

For most patients, PSA screening gives a 5-to-10-year lead time — a vital window in which other new techniques (needle biopsies plus improvements in surgery and radiotherapy) can work.

Finally, the task force argues that PSA testing causes men to suffer from painful treatments and endure anxiety about false-positive results. It doesn’t measure this cost or have any data to support it. Worse, it disregards the scientific evidence that treatments reduce suffering and improve quality of life, even if they don’t always increase survival.

In reality, this ban is based on politics, not science. The task force — and similar ObamaCare agencies — applies standards that aren’t achievable. Going forward, new technologies would require decades of data and would have to demonstrate they’re nearly 100 perfect before ObamaCare would cover them.

Unless, of course, the procedure is politically popular: ObamaCare will treat contraception as cost-effective, although there’s no hard data to support that claim.

The value of health-care services, in other words, will be measured by political criteria, not by their ability to reduce suffering and death.

That’s an ugly future, indeed.


Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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