WSJ Only Half Right About Palin’s ‘Death Panel’ Concerns

In a blog post today entitled “Revisiting Death Panels,” the WSJ opinion page analyzes the recent revelation that Medicare Chief Donald Berwick inserted language into Medicare regulations compensating doctors for elderly advance care planning. In other words, to do by bureaucratic fiat what Congress chose not to do legislatively.

But while the conservative blog rightly has a problem with how this language came about, they seem blithely unconcerned about the end result. In fact, they argue, I believe incorrectly, that Governor Palin was never concerned about end-of-life counseling being included in Obamacare.

Here is their reasoning:

Advance care planning lays out the options and allows patients, in consultation with their providers and family members, to ensure that their future treatment is consistent with their wishes and moral values should they become too sick to decide for themselves.

The affront is that Medicare needs to sneak around in order to offer a type of care that is routine in private insurance. If the medical experts in Congress haven’t decided that some treatment or service is worthy of the fee schedule, then the program won’t pay for it even if it is in the best interests of patients.

[…]

[T]he term [Death Panel] [n]ever had anything to do with something so potentially beneficial. We wrote at the time that Sarah Palin’s coinage was sensationalistic, but it was meant to illustrate a larger truth about a world of finite resources and infinite entitlement wants.

Under highly centralized national health care, the government inevitably makes cost-minded judgments about what types of care are “best” for society at large, and the standardized treatments it prescribes inevitably steal life-saving options from individual patients.

It’s true that Palin’s main point in her inital Death Panel metaphor was about government rationing of healthcare, but she also expanded on that point in her follow-up Facebook post Concerning Death Panels on Aug. 14, 2009.

With all due respect, it’s misleading for the President to describe this [end-of-life counseling] section as an entirely voluntary provision that simply increases the information offered to Medicare recipients. The issue is the context in which that information is provided and the coercive effect these consultations will have in that context.

Section 1233 authorizes advanced care planning consultations for senior citizens on Medicare every five years, and more often “if there is a significant change in the health condition of the individual … or upon admission to a skilled nursing facility, a long-term care facility… or a hospice program.” During those consultations, practitioners must explain “the continuum of end-of-life services and supports available, including palliative care and hospice,” and the government benefits available to pay for such services.

Now put this in context. These consultations are authorized whenever a Medicare recipient’s health changes significantly or when they enter a nursing home, and they are part of a bill whose stated purpose is “to reduce the growth in health care spending.” Is it any wonder that senior citizens might view such consultations as attempts to convince them to help reduce health care costs by accepting minimal end-of-life care?

As Charles Lane notes in the Washington Post:

If it’s all about obviating suffering, emotional or physical, what’s it doing in a measure to “bend the curve” on health-care costs?”

As Lane also points out:

Though not mandatory, as some on the right have claimed, the consultations envisioned in Section 1233 aren’t quite “purely voluntary,” as Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.) asserts. To me, “purely voluntary” means “not unless the patient requests one.” Section 1233, however, lets doctors initiate the chat and gives them an incentive — money — to do so. Indeed, that’s an incentive to insist.

Patients may refuse without penalty, but many will bow to white-coated authority. Once they’re in the meeting, the bill does permit “formulation” of a plug-pulling order right then and there. So when Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) denies that Section 1233 would “place senior citizens in situations where they feel pressured to sign end-of-life directives that they would not otherwise sign,” I don’t think he’s being realistic.

Even columnist Eugene Robinson, a self-described “true believer” who “will almost certainly support” “whatever reform package finally emerges”, agrees that “If the government says it has to control health-care costs and then offers to pay doctors to give advice about hospice care, citizens are not delusional to conclude that the goal is to reduce end-of-life spending.”

So are these usually friendly pundits wrong? Is this all just a “rumor” to be “disposed of”, as President Obama says? Not according to Democratic New York State Senator Ruben Diaz, Chairman of the New York State Senate Aging Committee, who writes:

Section 1233 of House Resolution 3200 puts our senior citizens on a slippery slope and may diminish respect for the inherent dignity of each of their lives…. It is egregious to consider that any senior citizen … should be placed in a situation where he or she would feel pressured to save the government money by dying a little sooner than he or she otherwise would, be required to be counseled about the supposed benefits of killing oneself, or be encouraged to sign any end of life directives that they would not otherwise sign.

Of course, it’s not just this one provision that presents a problem. My original comments concerned statements made by Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, a health policy advisor to President Obama and the brother of the President’s chief of staff. Dr. Emanuel has written that some medical services should not be guaranteed to those “who are irreversibly prevented from being or becoming participating citizens….An obvious example is not guaranteeing health services to patients with dementia.” Dr. Emanuel has also advocated basing medical decisions on a system which “produces a priority curve on which individuals aged between roughly 15 and 40 years get the most chance, whereas the youngest and oldest people get chances that are attenuated.”

President Obama can try to gloss over the effects of government authorized end-of-life consultations, but the views of one of his top health care advisors are clear enough. It’s all just more evidence that the Democratic legislative proposals will lead to health care rationing, and more evidence that the top-down plans of government bureaucrats will never result in real health care reform.

I think Palin’s concern can be summarized as follows: Whenever government gets involved in what should be a private matter, all bets are off.

Which is perhaps why they’re being so sneaky about it.



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I'm a mother of three, and devoted Palin blogger.

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