This story was originally published on Nov. 22, 2009. It was updated on Aug. 6, 2010.
Every medical study ever conducted has concluded that 100 percent of all Americans will eventually die. This comes as no great surprise, but the amount of money being spent at the very end of people's lives probably will.
Last year, Medicare paid $55 billion just for doctor and hospital bills during the last two months of patients' lives. That's more than the budget for the Department of Homeland Security, or the Department of Education. And it has been estimated that 20 to 30 percent of these medical expenses may have had no meaningful impact. Most of the bills are paid for by the federal government with few or no questions asked.
Now you might think this would have been an obvious thing for Congress to address when it passed health care reform, but as we reported last November in the midst of the debate, what use to be a bipartisan issue has become a politically explosive one - a perfect example of the rising costs that threaten to bankrupt the country and how hard it is to rein them in.
Marcia Klish is either being saved by medical technology or being prevented from dying a natural death.
She is 71 years old and suffering from the complications of colon surgery and a hospital-acquired infection. She has been unconscious in the intensive care unit at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., for the better part of a week.
One of her doctors, Ira Byock, told "60 Minutes" correspondent Steve Kroft it costs up to $10,000 a day to maintain someone in the intensive care unit. Some patients remain here for weeks or even months; one has been there for six months.
"This is the way so many Americans die. Something like 18 to 20 percent of Americans spend their last days in an ICU," Byock told Kroft. "And, you know, it's extremely expensive. It's uncomfortable. Many times they have to be sedated so that they don't reflexively pull out a tube, or sometimes their hands are restrained. This is not the way most people would want to spend their last days of life. And yet this has become almost the medical last rites for people as they die."
Dr. Byock leads a team that treats and counsels patients with advanced illnesses.
He says modern medicine has become so good at keeping the terminally ill alive by treating the complications of underlying disease that the inevitable process of dying has become much harder and is often prolonged unnecessarily.
"Families cannot imagine there could be anything worse than their loved one dying. But in fact, there are things worse. Most generally, it's having someone you love die badly," Byock said.
Asked what he means by "die badly," Byock told Kroft, "Dying suffering. Dying connected to machines. I mean, denial of death at some point becomes a delusion, and we start acting in ways that make no sense whatsoever. And I think that's collectively what we're doing."
A vast majority of Americans say they want to die at home, but 75 percent die in a hospital or a nursing home.
"How do so many people end up in the hospital?" Kroft asked Dr. Elliott Fisher, a researcher at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy.
"It's the path of least resistance," Fisher said.
The institute did a detailed analysis of Medicare records for patients in the last two years of their lives. Fisher says it is more efficient for doctors to manage patients who are seriously ill in a hospital situation, and there are other incentives that affect the cost and the care patients receive. Among them: the fact that most doctors get paid based on the number of patients that they see, and most hospitals get paid for the patients they admit.
"The way we set up the system right now, primary care physicians don't have time to spend an hour with you, see how you respond, if they wanted to adjust your medication," Fisher said. "So, the easiest thing for everybody up the stream is to admit you to the hospital. I think 30 percent of hospital stays in the United States are probably unnecessary given what our research looks like."