Obama’s Death Panels

Posted Aug. 12, 2009, at 6:40 p.m.

In his town meeting forum Tuesday in Portsmouth, N.H., President Obama tried to tamp down the many rumors about the comprehensive health care reform he and congressional Democrats are proposing. One of the rumors is that the legislation will create “death panels” that would deny life-saving treatment.

The death panel claim is so absurd as to not warrant exploring but for the fact that the concept is tied to an important truth about health care, namely that in the last year of life a disproportionate amount of health care is consumed.

But first, the absurd part of the claim, which was made by no less a mainstream political figure than former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. The 2008 GOP vice-presidential nominee called the president’s health care plan “downright evil” on her Facebook page last week, and added: “The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society’ whether they are worthy of health care.”

In Portsmouth, the president said the idea Gov. Palin was referring to is related to a provision in a bill proposed by Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., that would add to Medicare a process to assist with end-of-life decisions. “Isakson has since noted,” The Hill reported, “that Palin’s assessment of the proposal is inaccurate.”

Absurd characterizations of the health care plan are rampant, and the president and congressional Democrats are wise to address them all, regardless how far-fetched. The impetus to change the status quo is not, as critics claim, a desire to control people or the one-sixth of the economy that is health care. The impetus for change is to rein in the runaway cost of providing health care, and to improve outcomes. The United States has one of the costliest systems among industrialized nations, and does not provide the healthiest care.

With or without more government involvement in health care, end-of-life issues will be confronted. As 75 million baby boomers enter their final decades, the economy cannot bear the cost of providing every possible treatment, procedure and medication, especially when the prospects for an extended, good-quality life are slim. Whether it is Medicare officials or insurance companies, pulling out all the stops and spending tens of thousands of dollars on treatments that add months, not years of life is not possible.

And in fact, such decisions are already being made. One widely reported case was that of Nataline Sarkisyan, 17, of Glendale, Calif., who died of leukemia in 2007. Her parents fought to get their insurance company to pay for a liver transplant, but it refused. If costs could have been reduced, or at least contained, as will certainly occur if a comprehensive reform is implemented, perhaps the transplant would have been affordable.

An intelligent, accurate discussion of these issues is still possible, despite the hyperbolic rhetoric from critics.

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