Reality check: Health care scare talk is just that, scary talk

Miami HeraldAugust 12, 2009 

The strongest critics call the Obama administration's healthcare ideas "downright evil'' and claim that government "death panels'' will decide who among the old and weak should die while Medicare benefits get slashed to fund the uninsured.

"At first, I was very upset,'' says Jean Lowry, 79, of Hallandale Beach. "All this talk that they're going to cut this, and then they cut that. Then I started doing some reading. But there are a lot of seniors out there that are really scared.''

The reality is much less sensational.

Two veteran health-care policy experts, Gerard Anderson of Johns Hopkins and Steven Ullmann of the University of Miami, say much of the fear talk is based on innocuous references in the dense House bill to funding consultations on end-of-life care for those who want it and a proposal to set up a panel of health-care experts to decide what medical care treatments are effective.

Still, the boldest accusations have dominated the debate in recent days.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin used her Facebook page to say: "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 . . . whether they are worthy of healthcare. Such a system is downright evil.''

Newt Gingrich, the Republican who is former speaker of the House, defended Palin's comments Sunday morning on ABC, saying that people should be scared about the possibility of government-ordered euthanasia.

"People are very concerned about cost controls. . . . You are asking us to trust the government,'' Gingrich said. "Communal standards is a very dangerous concept.'' When host George Stephanopoulos told him there was nothing like that in the bill, Gingrich said, "The bill is 1,000 pages of setting up mechanisms . . . We know people who say routinely, 'Well, you're going to make decisions. You're going to have to decide.' . . . Clearly there are people who believe in euthanasia.''

Anderson of Johns Hopkins, who has been dealing with health policy issues for more than 30 years, said he was stunned to hear such talk. "You have people trying to scare the American public -- and these are the scariest issues they can possibly find, but they have very little substance.''

The one place in the bill that discusses dying, say both Anderson and Ullmann, comes with patients deciding how they want to end their lives.

Insurers -- public and private -- generally don't pay a doctor for discussing the options of a living will, whether choosing to die at home or in a hospice or a hospital when the time comes.

The reform proposal says that a doctor should be paid if the patient wants to discuss the issue -- nothing more. "Nowhere is there the idea that somebody has to die,'' Ullmann said.

More complex is the issue controlling Medicare spending. Over the past several years, many liberal and conservative policymakers -- including Republican Tommy Thompson, former head of Health and Human Services -- have said that Medicare will go broke in the coming years unless something is done to reduce costs.

Some lawmakers propose an independent commission of healthcare professionals be created similar to the commission set up to deal with the politically explosive issue of which military bases should be closed.

Read the full story at MiamiHereald.com.

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