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‘Death panels’ are back, and patients will profit

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Dec. 28, 2010 at 7:52 pm |
December 28, 2010 5:56 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

President Obama appears to have slipped “death panels” back into federal health care law via executive authority. Good for him.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, there are lies, damn lies and the death panel scare. The ever-inventive Sarah Palin came up with the term last year in a drive to whip up fears about health care reform.

Section 1233 of the health care bill, she said, would allow “Obama’s death panel” to judge whether “my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome” are “worthy of health care.”

Others took up the cry – Section 1233 made a convenient target – and they were so successful that Congress eventually dropped the measure from the reform bill.

Back to the world of facts. Only a certified paranoid could have read the actual text of the section and concluded that someone was trying to pull the plug on grandma. It simply allowed Medicare funding for discussions, every five years, between doctors and patients about their end-of-life options. That’s it.

These conversations happen all the time right now. Patients dying of cancer, for example, already consult with their doctors about what treatments are available, whether they want aggressive medical intervention, what life-sustaining measures they are willing to accept, the value of advance directives and the appointment of health care “proxies” – typically family members – who can make decisions on their behalf if they are incapacitated.

It’s all strictly voluntary and designed to make sure the patient’s wishes are carried out. A genuine death panel wouldn’t bother with any discussions.

But common sense may be prevailing. Obama recently revived the counseling option through regulation, by defining “voluntary advance care planning” as part of the services routinely covered by Medicare in annual physical exams.

Hard-core opponents – who rarely cite the measure’s actual language – are trying to crank up the disinformation machine again. Maybe they’ll make some headway; as Lincoln said, you can fool some of the people all the time.

But even some of the usual suspects may have lost interest in the issue. It was, all along, no more than a handy cudgel for beating up on “Obamacare” and throwing its supporters on the defensive.

Now the election’s over and done, the Democrats have taken their shellacking, some calm has been restored, and most Americans have probably figured out the difference between voluntary counseling and murder.

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