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She's Deaf, You Pay The Price

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She's Deaf, You Pay The Price
A few words on the law of unintended consequences, and why I'm for small government, by the Freakonomics boys in New York Times Magazine:

A few months ago, a prospective patient called the office of Andrew Brooks, a top-ranked orthopedic surgeon in Los Angeles. She was having serious knee trouble, and she was also deaf. She wanted to know if her deafness posed a problem for Brooks. He had his assistant relay a message: no, of course not; he could easily discuss her situation using knee models, anatomical charts and written notes.

The woman later called again to say she would rather have a sign-language interpreter. Fine, Brooks said, and asked his assistant to make the arrangements. As it turned out, an interpreter would cost $120 an hour, with a two-hour minimum, and the expense wasn’t covered by insurance. Brooks didn’t think it made sense for him to pay. That would mean laying out $240 to conduct an exam for which the woman’s insurance company would pay him $58 — a loss of more than $180 even before accounting for taxes and overhead.

So Brooks suggested to the patient that they make do without the interpreter. That’s when she told him that the Americans With Disabilities Act (A.D.A.) allowed a patient to choose the mode of interpretation, at the physician’s expense. Brooks, flabbergasted, researched the law and found that he was indeed obliged to do as the patient asked — unless, that is, he wanted to invite a lawsuit that he would probably lose.

If he ultimately operated on the woman’s knee, Brooks would be paid roughly $1,200. But he would also then need to see her for eight follow-up visits, presumably with the $240 interpreter each time. By the end of the patient’s treatment, Brooks would be solidly in the red.

He went ahead and examined the woman, paying the interpreter out of his pocket. As it turned out, she didn’t need surgery; her knee could be treated through physical therapy. This was a fortunate outcome for everyone involved — except, perhaps, for the physical therapist who would have to pay the interpreter’s bills.

Brooks told several colleagues and doctor friends about his deaf patient. “They all said, ‘If I ever get a call from someone like that, I’ll never see her,’ ” he says. This led him to wonder if the A.D.A. had a dark side. “It’s got to be widely pervasive and probably not talked about, because doctors are just getting squeezed further and further. This kind of patient will end up getting passed on and passed on, getting the runaround, not understanding why she’s not getting good care.”

So does the A.D.A. in some cases hurt the very patients it is intended to help? That’s a hard question to answer with the available medical data. But the economists Daron Acemoglu and Joshua Angrist once asked a similar question: How did the A.D.A. affect employment among the disabled?

Their conclusion was rather startling and makes Andrew Brooks’s hunch ring true. Acemoglu and Angrist found that when the A.D.A. was enacted in 1992, it led to a sharp drop in the employment of disabled workers. How could this be? Employers, concerned that they wouldn’t be able to discipline or fire disabled workers who happened to be incompetent, apparently avoided hiring them in the first place.

...So does this mean that every law designed to help endangered animals, poor people and the disabled is bound to fail? Of course not. But with a government that is regularly begged for relief — these days, from mortgage woes, health-care costs and tax burdens — and with every presidential hopeful making daily promises to address these woes, it might be worth encouraging the winning candidate to think twice (or even 8 or 10 times) before rushing off to do good. Because if there is any law more powerful than the ones constructed in a place like Washington, it is the law of unintended consequences.