Sunday, November 15, 2009

My Near Death Panel Experience


A great first-hand account of the "death-panel" fiasco by Earl Blumenauer, the Democratic Congressman from Oregon whose well-intentioned provisions were twisted unrecognizably and used for political purposes. An op-ed in the NYTimes.com.
I reached out to Republicans, including conservative members of Congress who often expressed support for [paying doctors for providing voluntary end-of-life counseling], and worked with national experts in palliative care and advocacy groups in devising the end-of-life provision. My Republican co-sponsor, Charles Boustany of Louisiana, told me he had many end-of-life conversations as a cardiovascular surgeon but unfortunately they often were too late. He wished that he could have spoken to patients and their families when they could have reflected properly, not when surgery was just hours away.

While continuing to work on other important health care reform provisions, I was confident that in this area, we had made a contribution that would ultimately be in the final bill. It might even serve as a bridge for bipartisan compromise as we entered the frustratingly contentious end game of finishing the overall legislation.

But the battle lines were being drawn. Little did I know how deep the trenches would be dug, nor how truth would be one of the first, and most obvious, casualties.

The House Ways and Means Committee “mark-up session” of the health care bill, on July 16, lasted all day and into the night. Republican colleagues offered dozens of amendments aimed at numerous provisions. Nowhere was there a single proposal to change the end-of-life language, nor a word spoken in opposition. Not a single word.

Then Betsy McCaughey entered the fray. A former lieutenant governor of New York, Ms. McCaughey had gained notoriety in the 1990s by attacking the Clinton health plan. In a radio interview, she attacked the end-of-life provisions in the health care legislation, claiming it “would make it mandatory, absolutely require, that every five years people in Medicare have a required counseling session that will tell them how to end their life sooner.” The St. Petersburg Times’s fact-checking Web site PolitiFact quickly excoriated her: “McCaughey isn’t just wrong; she’s spreading a ridiculous falsehood.” *hellip;

The most bizarre moment came on Aug. 7 when Sarah Palin used the term “death panels” on her Facebook page. She wrote: “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. Such a system is downright evil.” …

The news media was a particular culprit in this drama. This was not just Fox News; seemingly all the national news organizations monitored any meetings they could find between lawmakers and constituents, looking for flare-ups, for YouTube moments. The meetings that involved thoughtful exchanges or even support for the proposals would never find their way on air; coverage was given only to the most outrageous behavior, furthering distorting the true picture.

My office quickly produced testimonials from 300 respected professionals and organizations to set the record straight. Articles followed about how Republicans themselves had supported such provisions. Sites like PolitiFact and Factcheck.org as well as national organizations like the AARP pushed back on the lies.

It didn’t matter. The “death panel” episode 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.

There was a troubling new dynamic: People like Senator Chuck Grassley, a Iowa Republican, were now parroting these falsehoods in their town meetings and letting it drive their policy decisions. (Mr. Grassley: “We should not have a government program that determines if you’re going to pull the plug on Grandma.”) When the most extreme elements peddling false information can cow senior members of Congress into embracing their claims, it does not bode well for either policymaking or for the Republican Party. …

The inability to protect even the smallest element of bipartisan consensus from being used as a savage weapon of political attack makes lawmakers’ tasks harder, and the American public even more disillusioned.

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