In November 1971, a gentleman named Shep Glazer testified before a Congressional committee. By nearly all measures, it was a fairly standard affair. An American, acting under the belief that there was a problem that needed solving, went to Congress to state his case. His experience was nearly identical to that of tens of thousands of other Americans who have sought redress from their elected officials, save one critical difference: He did it while receiving treatment from a dialysis machine.
Today, there are half a million Americans living with kidney failure. Without a transplant, these patients cannot survive. And so, three times a week, nearly 400,000 of them undergo dialysis in their homes or in a clinic in their city, town or neighborhood. For four hours, they receive the life-sustaining therapy that is necessary to clean their blood and remove the excess fluid that, for the rest of us, our kidneys take care of.
It was not always like this, however. In the 1960s, when dialysis first became a viable therapy for people with end stage renal disease, or ESRD, the cost of the treatment was beyond the reach of average Americans. Dialysis machines existed in a select few cities, but there were not nearly enough to treat everyone whose kidneys had failed. Someone, it soon became clear, had to decide who would be lucky enough to receive this ground-breaking new treatment. Panels of experts — consisting of physicians, hospital administrators and even clergy — were convened to determine who was worthy of receiving dialysis and who was not. These were the original death panels, and they decided quite literally who would live and who would die.
Recognizing that there had to be a better way, patients, physicians and policy makers began to search for a solution. They soon found it in the new law that extended health care to our seniors. If we can pass a law that provides critical health care for our most vulnerable seniors, these people asked, why not use the same law to extend care to our most vulnerable chronic patients? And so people like Mr. Glazer came to Washington offering a path toward a better way.
Congress listened. On July 1, 1973, Medicare began to confer automatic eligibility on anyone diagnosed with ESRD. For the first time in history, whether an American was 5 or 65, the federal government would cover their cost of care if their kidneys failed.
Medicare has lived up to that commitment for the past 40 years, even as the number of people with ESRD has grown faster than anyone expected. Due to the baby boom and the increasing rates of diabetes and hypertension (two of the primary risk factors for kidney disease), there are more people diagnosed with ESRD than ever before. The kidney community — nephrologists, hospitals and approximately 5,000 outpatient dialysis centers across the nation — has done its part in creating a network of care that provides access throughout the country. The community has worked to reduce costs and improve health outcomes and quality of life for patients and their families.
Terri Henderson, 6, center, whose mother is El Salvador, attends a rally with members of Congress at Union Station's Columbus Circle to announce the Restore Opportunity, Strengthen, and Improve the Economy (ROSIE) Act on July 29, 2014. The legislation provides incentives for government contractors to pay a living wage and other benefits that would help low-income workers.