Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Birth of Death Panels

A long-time Congressman offers a lesson today about how politics and the media collude to distort rational discussion.

In an Op Ed, Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon explains how his bipartisan proposal to have Medicare pay for voluntary end-of-life discussions morphed into death panels:

"I found it perverse that Medicare would pay for almost any medical procedure, yet not reimburse doctors for having a thoughtful conversation to prepare patients and families for the delicate, complex and emotionally demanding decisions surrounding the end of life. So when I was working on the health care bill, I included language directing Medicare to cover a voluntary discussion with a doctor once every five years about living wills, power of attorney and end-of-life treatment preferences...

"Indeed, the majority of Congressional Republicans supported the similar provisions for terminally ill elderly patients that were part of the 2003 prescription drug bill. In the spring of 2008, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska issued a proclamation that stated the importance of end-of-life planning."

During debate, no one in Congress offered any objection until Betsy McCaughey, who had savaged Clinton health care, in a radio interview claimed that the provision would "absolutely require that every five years people in Medicare have a required counseling session that will tell them how to end their life sooner."

That statement was labeled a "Pants on Fire falsehood" by the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Politifact, but Sarah Palin, a McCaughey clone, raised it to a higher level on her Facebook page with the warning that "my parents or my baby with Down syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’" while Rush Limbaugh chimed in and the Republicans in Congress all joined the attacks as if they had received their marching orders from on high.

The town hall flareups ensued, and the wall-to-wall coverage, Blumenauer says, "shows how the news media, after aiding and abetting falsehood, were unable to perform their traditional role of reporting the facts. By lavishing uncritical attention on the most exaggerated claims and extreme behavior, they unleashed something that the truth could not dispel."

The furor has subsided and health care reform is moving ahead, but the death panel fear surely lingers on in the public opinion polls that find Americans equally divided about the bills.

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