HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Case Western Reserve University School of Law

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Allocating Scarce Medical Resources During a Pandemic: Can States and Healthcare Systems Consider Sex? Should They?

Diane E. Hoffmann (University of Maryland), Katherine E. Goodman (University of Maryland), Allocating Scarce Medical Resources During a Pandemic: Can States and Healthcare Systems Consider Sex? Should They?, U. Md. Sch. L. Legal Stud. (Research Paper No. 2021-13, 2021):

Nearly two years into the pandemic, COVID-19 has touched all U.S. states and populations. However, severe outcomes and deaths have not been borne equally. As is now well recognized, there have been significant demographic disparities by age and race: nearly 80% of all U.S. COVID-19 deaths have been among persons aged 65 or older, and hospitalization and death rates for Black and Hispanic patients with COVID-19 are two to three times higher than the rate for White patients. What has received much less attention, however, is an additional demographic disparity evident in the COVID-19 pandemic — sex. Nationally there are 20% more COVID-19 deaths among men, and men have higher COVID-19 mortality rates in every U.S. state with publicly available data. Numerous studies have established that male sex imposes an independent, approximately 30 percent higher risk of death, even when accounting for other risk factors, such as hypertension and obesity, that are more common among men.

While there has been a significant amount of discussion in the press and the academic literature regarding the role that race can or should play in decisions to allocate scarce medical resources such as vaccines, there has been much less attention paid to the role of sex in the allocation of early-intervention treatments, such as monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) and the soon-to-be-authorized oral antivirals. In this article, we seek to remedy this gap in the literature. We use a hypothetical but realistic scenario in which states have available to them a treatment that is very similar to currently available mAbs and in which therapeutic demand greatly exceeds the available supply. Even if limited to individuals over the age of 65 with one or more comorbidities, there is not enough of the therapy to treat these high-risk individuals and some sort of further triaging would be necessary. Given the strong data that male sex is an independent risk factor for poor COVID-19 outcomes, we speculate that states and/or hospital systems might wish to use sex as one risk factor, among many, in an algorithm to calculate a patient’s probability of experiencing hospitalization or death from COVID-19. These estimates, in turn, would be used to allocate this scarce medical resource to highest-risk individuals. We then ask two questions: (1) whether, as a legal matter, sex would be a permissible factor to incorporate into allocation criteria; and (2) whether, as a normative matter, sex should be considered in allocation of early-intervention therapies for COVID-19.

In answering the legal question, we first look at the possibility of successful challenges under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and then at possible challenges under Section 1557 (the antidiscrimination provision) of the Affordable Care Act. As to the former, we conclude that constitutionality could depend upon whether the federal courts view the basis for differential treatment as one based primarily upon biology, or upon a combination of biology and socio-cultural factors. Although we believe there is room for the courts to find that either basis is constitutionally valid, courts would be more likely to find it so if they analyzed it as a biological difference.

Under the Affordable Care Act, we conclude that it is much more difficult to predict how a federal court would rule. Section 1557 prohibits discrimination “on the basis of sex” in healthcare facilities and in the administration of healthcare. The statute permits the importation of Title IX jurisprudence in interpreting this provision. Courts, in interpreting Title IX, have also looked to Title VII case law. Each of these Titles have exceptions that permit distinctions “on the basis of sex” under certain circumstances. Whether courts would apply Title VII jurisprudence to Section 1557 is an unknown, even if it has been imported to Title IX. Additionally, whether courts would apply the exceptions provided in Title IX and Title VII to Sec. 1557, and how they would apply those exceptions, is difficult to predict. We argue that because of the flexibility the Court possesses in applying the relatively new Section 1557, as a normative matter, the Court should permit the use of sex as a factor in allocating early treatments that can prevent severe COVID-19 outcomes. We believe such a conclusion is justified by both a utilitarian framework of maximizing lives saved and stewarding scarce medical resources and by an egalitarian framework of providing individuals with the resources they need to achieve the same or similar outcomes.

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