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Why Do “Death Panels” Seem Plausible To Americans?

When Sarah Palin uttered the fateful words, “Death Panels,” she unleashed the holy wrath of the great unwashed masses, and as a result caused many of our more complacent legislators to abruptly bestir themselves into a higher state of arousal, if not outright agitation. Palin’s accusation caught more than a few of them utterly unawares, and embarrassingly flatfooted.

They felt, no doubt, like they were in that dream where you unaccountably find yourself naked in a crowd. But this time, rather than reaching to hide their sadly exposed nether parts, they reached instead for their pristine copies of HR 3200. One could almost pity them, desperately rifling through the 1100 virgin pages, wondering whether perhaps they should have tried to read that monstrosity earlier after all, and muttering to themselves, “Death panels? This damned thing has death panels?”

But DrRich is here to reassure them. First, as he has recently pointed out, there was in fact no reason for them to waste their time trying to read HR 3200. It was not designed for reading, comprehensibility, or (for that matter) imparting any actual information of any sort.

And second, HR 3200 contains no death panels. (In their state of stark panic, of course, and anxious to rid the bill of anything that might smack of death panels, our legislators quickly moved to strike Section 1233 from the bill, apparently because that section contains the phrase “end-of-life care.” But actually, Section 1233 talks about end-of-life counseling, and not death panels. Nothing in HR 3200 creates death panels.)*

The very notion of death panels seems to have many supporters of healthcare reform nonplussed. How can someone as inarticulate and obviously illiterate as Sarah Palin get away with accusing our highly-educated healthcare reformers of setting up such a thing as death panels?  Really, what are death panels anyway? And even more perplexingly (since, after all, Republicans are capable of anything), why do so many Americans believe her – even, apparently, hundreds of thousands of Americans who were enlightened enough to vote less than a year ago for President Obama?

This question ought to greatly concern any of our elected representatives who support healthcare reform and who plan on being returned to Congress.

When Sarah Palin said, “Death Panels,” she was dropping one last, tiny crystal into a supersaturated solution. Her words took what had been an amorphous and even chaotic sense of unease about healthcare reform, and immediately crystallized it into an organized latticework of directed rage and fear. So the real question (for politicians hoping to seek re-election) is not how Sarah Palin came to be savvy enough to know just the right words. (Perhaps she was just “lucky,” or perhaps – and DrRich suspects this is the real explanation – she is a lot smarter than her critics allow.) Rather, the real question is: What put the rabble in such a supersaturated state to begin with? Why did the absurd-on-its-face idea of “death panels” so resonate with them? What made those words galvanize their shapeless disquiet into a solid mass of resistance?

DrRich is very sorry to have to tell his friends of the Democratic persuasion the sad truth – it was President Obama who created this circumstance. Sarah Palin may have named the death panels, but before she ever thought of the phrase, President Obama had already described them in some detail.

He described their function, how they would operate, and who they would target. During the past 6 months President Obama has actually offered several short discussions on what a “death panel” might be expected to accomplish. But perhaps the most instructive example is the one he gave on ABC television during his June 24 National Town Hall meeting.

DrRich refers, of course, to the famous question about the 100-year-old woman who received a pacemaker. The questioner pointed out that her grandmother had badly needed a pacemaker, but had been turned down by a doctor because of her age. A second doctor, noting the patient’s alertness, zest for life, and generally youthful “spirit,” inserted the pacemaker despite her advanced age. Her symptoms resolved, and Grandma continues to do well 5 years later. The question for the President was: Under an Obama healthcare system, will an elderly person’s general state of health, and her “spirit,” be taken into account when making medical decisions – or will these decisions be made according to age only?

President Obama’s answer was clear. It is really not feasible, he indicated, to take “spirit” into account. We are going to make medical decisions based on objective evidence, and not subjective impressions. If the evidence shows that some form of treatment “is not necessarily going to improve care, then at least we can let the doctors know that – you know what? – maybe this isn’t going to help; maybe you’re better off not having the surgery, but taking the pain pill.”

(DrRich will give President Obama the benefit of the doubt regarding his suggestion that a 100-year-old women who needs a pacemaker might be better off with a pain pill. Despite the way he is portrayed on the cover of Time Magazine, Mr. Obama is not actually a doctor, and cannot be expected to understand that using a “pain pill” to treat an elderly woman who is lightheaded, dizzy, weak and possibly syncopal because of a slow heart rate might justifiably be considered a form of euthanasia rather than comfort care. DrRich does not believe the President was intentionally suggesting the old woman’s death should be actively hastened by means of a pain pill. At the same time, DrRich’s advice to this still-spry 105-year-old Grandma is: since pacemakers usually need to be replaced every 6 – 7 years, you’d better think about having your 5-year-old pacemaker replaced right now, before the Obama plan has a chance to become law.)

President Obama’s answer in this case tells us several things. 1) There will be a panel, or commission, or body of some sort, that is going to examine the medical evidence on how effective a certain treatment is likely to be in a certain population of patients. 2) This (let’s call it a “panel”) panel will “let the doctors know” whether that treatment ought to be used in those patients. (”Letting the doctor know” is a euphemism for “guidelines,” which itself is a euphemism for  legally-binding and ruthlessly enforced directives.). 3) “Subjective” measures (such as a physician’s clinical judgment as to an individual’s likelihood of responding to a therapy as the panel says they will – or, for that matter, a person’s “spirit”) ought not to influence these treatment recommendations, since that kind of subjective judgment is what got us into all this fiscal trouble in the first place.  4) But being that our government is a compassionate and caring one, palliative care will be made available in the form of pain control, even while withholding potentially curative care.

So, according to the President, we will have an omnipotent “panel,” acting at a distance and without any specific knowledge of particular cases, that will tell a doctor whether he/she can offer a particular therapy to a particular patient – or whether, instead, to offer a “pain pill.”  His description of this process, offered with variations over the past several months in several venues, has obviously made quite an impression among the people.  Of course, Mr. Obama is widely known to be a gifted communicator.

In any case, all that remained was for Sarah Palin to give the President’s panel a catchy name. And when she did, the American people (without reading HR 3200 or any other piece of legislation) knew exactly what she was talking about. They knew, because President Obama himself had been spelling it all out for them in plenty of detail for six months.

Indeed, it seems to DrRich that, if not for Mr. Obama’s having so carefully laid the groundwork,  Palin’s accusations of “death panels” would have fallen flat. It would have been regarded by most people as the absurdity Democrats insist that it is, rather than the epiphany it turned out to be.

* There are no death panels in HR 3200 because creating them there would have been entirely superfluous. If we are to have death panels, or any entity that might pass as one, the provision for such a panel is already the law of the land. It was made so earlier this year (conveniently, before anybody started paying attention) in the Stimulus Bill, which created the Federal Coordinating Council for Comparative Effectiveness Research.

DrRich has described before how the CER Council will perform cost-effectiveness calculations, then coerce physicians, through one form of federal subterfuge and intimidation or another, to employ the least expensive therapies (thus enforcing “cost”, while shouting “effectiveness”).

It is called a CER Council, and not a death panel. But if you should develop a fatal illness which you might have survived had you been allowed to receive a treatment that the Council has deemed cost-ineffective, then you might be forgiven for thinking of the CER Council (from your insular, personal, narrow-minded, self-interested point of view), as a death panel. But there are no death panels in HR 3200, and Sarah Palin should be ashamed of herself for suggesting otherwise.

*This blog post was originally published at The Covert Rationing Blog*

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