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Desperate to reduce spending on health care, Congress has for the first time approved setting aside money to allow the feds to embark on “comparative effectiveness medical research.” $1.1 billion, to be exact. However, that amount seems minuscule when compared with the $2.2 trillion (16% of America’s gross domestic product) spent on health care in 2007. The money, which is part of the economic stimulus bill, will be immediately available and spent over several years.

In an attempt to lower annual health care spending, a group of researchers will use this money to compare the effectiveness of medicines, surgery, medical devices, conservative therapy, and other methods of treatment for certain illnesses, and report their findings to a 15-person committee set up to advise President Obama and Congress. The committee will not only consider the effectiveness of the treatment, but will consider cost as well.

According to the New York Times and Dr. Elliott S. Fisher of Dartmouth Medical School, the research will try to answer questions such as:

  1. Is it better to treat severe neck pain with surgery or a combination of physical therapy, exercise and medications?

  2. What is the best combination of “talk therapy” and prescription drugs to treat mild depression?

  3. How do drugs and “watchful waiting” compare with surgery as a treatment for leg pain that results from blockage of the arteries in the lower legs?

  4. Is it better to treat chronic heart failure by medications alone or by drugs and home monitoring of a patient’s blood pressure and weight?

The legislation has become quite controversial with supporters of the bill believing it will lead to more effective treatment at a lower cost, whereas critics argue it will lead to rationing treatment and eventually denying more expensive treatment altogether. Although there are concerns presented, President Obama is expected to sign the bill into action Tuesday.

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