The Right Coast

March 31, 2005
Authors of Misleading Bankruptcy Study Have an Unusual Perspective on Rent Control Too
By Gail Heriot

Remember the bankruptcy study I wrote about in the National Review Online back in February? It made the front page in newspapers all across the country in early February with headlines like "Medical Bills Blamed in Half of Bankruptcies" and "Medical Bills Cause About Half of Bankruptcies, Study Finds." In early March, it made the rounds again, this time as fodder for op-eds in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other newspapers urging rejection of the bankruptcy bill. The flaws in the study, however, are so numerous and glaring that I couldn't cover them all in the NRO essay. Reading it will only give you a taste.

I learned today that this was not the first time lead author David Himmelstein and co-author Steffie Woolhandler, both Harvard University associate clinical professors of medicine, weighed in with an unusual medical perspective on a hotly contested political issue. In 1996, when Massachusetts was considering abolishing rent control, Himmelstein and Woolhandler protested with the argument that (as Woolhandler put it), "If rent control vanishes, dozens will die." Noting that stress and social isolation can and sometimes do result in heart attack and death, she stated, "One-third of our heart attack patients at Cambridge Hospital live in rent-controlled apartments. By allowing landlords to force them out, the governor and state Legislature are implementing the death penalty--a social policy sure to kill."

Only heart attacks by rent-subsidized tenants were considered in this curious analysis. One could, of course, spin out similar tales of heart attacks by landlords who are unable to make ends meet because they can't charge fair market rents or of would-be tenants falling ill when they can't find an apartment at all, because nobody is willing to build apartments buildings that will only be rent controlled when completed. But evidently the good doctors were not inclined to go that far.

My friend Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe had this to say at the time:

"Somehow, in all the months that the rent-control debate hissed and billowed in Massachusetts, it never occurred to me that the best way to shed light on the issue was to talk about killing. Limited as I am, I had imagined that [the issue] was about the right of property owners to charge fair-market rents vs. the desire of tenants to live in subsidized apartments.... If only conservatives could be as sensitive ... as Drs. Woolhandler and Himmelstein. Then they would realize how massive the death toll can be when liberals don't get their way."

I can't link you to Jeff's column or the Boston Globe story, since they are from 1996. They are on Lexis/Nexis. Instead, I will link you to one of Jeff's more recent columns on socialized medicine. Himmelstein and Woolhandler are co-founders of Physicians for a National Health Care Program, which advocates a single-payer system as the "only solution to solving the United States' many health care problems," so it's on topic.