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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Rights, Dignity, & Death: Palin Propaganda Disrespects the American Patient

On August 7th Alaska Governor Sarah Palin warned that Congress and the White House will create bureaucratic health rationing panels – aka “death panels” – to decide whether America’s sick, aged, or disabled are “worthy of healthcare.” In other words, Palin predicts the government will decide if you live or die, should pending legislation become law.

In the same breath that she mentions death panels, Palin asserts that “[h]uman rights and human dignity must be at the center of any health care discussion.” I wholeheartedly agree. “Rights” and “dignity” are central to the health care discussions we have with our doctors, particularly end-of-life consultations about our future care.

A wide range of media have delivered over forty reports refuting this warped and unfounded claim but shockingly, it is still believed by many, much like last year’s charges that President Obama is a Muslim. Conservative pundits and fringe elements are using it as a call to arms to oppose reform.

Spare us the pain, and examine the facts.

Proposed legislation provides Medicare funding for voluntary end-of-life counseling, also known as advanced care planning consultation. This permits American citizens to visit their doctor once every 5 years to discuss issues like hospice care, health proxies, living wills, and appropriate future pain medications. There are no provisions for bureaucratic health boards, no mentions of care rationing, and no allusions to anything resembling a “death panel.”

Despite all this evidence, arguments to the contrary pervade the blogosphere. The misinformation just won’t stop. Those who hype the “death panel” argument continue to distract attention away from an already confusing debate on healthcare. We need to focus on the framework and details of an integrative, preventative healthcare reform approach, and not get lost in the mire of deficient, inflammatory rhetoric.

Regardless of how irrational their basis, “death panelists” are having a very real impact on healthcare reform. The New York Times reported on August 14th that the Senate will likely drop end-of-life care provisions because they “could be misinterpreted and implemented incorrectly.” Furthermore, USA Today reported on August 18th that while end-of-life counseling “started out as a rare example of congressional bipartisanship,” the measure has effectively zero chance of passing. Not only has Congress been forced to ignore one potential building block for consensus, but many American citizens may be forced to enter a very trying period of life with little to no guidance from their personal physicians.

Framing end-of-life counseling as some form of forced euthanasia robs America’s seniors of the dignity that comes with making these difficult decisions in their waning years. It is a disservice to humane hospice and in-home care, and it insults the intelligence of responsible Americans seeking candid medical advice on extremely sensitive treatment options. This debate is more “sound and fury,” another sidetracked discussion where political rhetoric displaced policy debate.

To get the health care dialogue with the American people back on track, President Obama needs to step up and address these issues directly, along with making the case for comprehensive health care reform – not just health insurance reform – starting with a national focus on wellness and prevention.