McIlheran's a "Deather"

Aug. 17, 2009
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I know, I know—life’s too short to fact-check Patrick McIlheran, but somebody’s got to do it.

His jaw-dropping fear-mongering in his recent column “Pity and the Public Value of Your Life” was downright scary—scary that it appeared in the pages of a mainstream newspaper that supposedly fact-checks its content.

First off is his assertion that “some commentators were openly contemptuous” of Sarah Palin’s decision to give birth to her son Trig, who has Down syndrome. Actually, I would say that most commentators respected Palin’s decision to be a good mom to Trig but were contemptuous of her willingness to use Trig as a political prop. The most recent example is her much-criticized (and debunked) “death panel” comment.

But that’s not the point of McIlheran’s op-ed. He’d rather scare seniors about the government’s plan to kill them:

People with the most costly and abhorred condition, old age, grasp this and fret. Congress hasn't helped by offering to pay doctors to talk with old people every five years (or any time their diagnosis worsens) about how they'd like to die.

This doesn't mandate euthanasia, the House bill's backers hotly retort. True. Congress does, though, want to encourage bringing up the subject of whether you wish to be unplugged. Just, you know, in case.

McIlheran’s cruel scare tactics are based on statements made by longtime reform foe Betsy McCaughey, such as this one: "Congress 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."

That sentiment’s been repeated by folks like Palin and Rush Limbaugh. But their claims are absolutely false, according to the Pulitzer Prize-winning

The fact-checkers write:

In her chat with [former presidential candidate Fred] Thompson, McCaughey said the language can be found on page 425 of the health care bill, so we started there. Indeed, Sec. 1233 of the bill, labeled "Advance Care Planning Consultation" details how the bill would, for the first time, require Medicare to cover the cost of end-of-life counseling sessions. 

According to the bill, "such consultation shall include the following: An explanation by the practitioner of advance care planning, including key questions and considerations, important steps, and suggested people to talk to; an explanation by the practitioner of advance directives, including living wills and durable powers of attorney, and their uses; an explanation by the practitioner of the role and responsibilities of a health care proxy."

Medicare will cover one session every five years, the legislation states. If a patient becomes very ill in the interim, Medicare will cover additional sessions.

They also note that AARP lobbied in support of the provision. Many Republicans—even Sarah Palin herself, who had sponsored a Health Care Decisions Day in 2008—have favored these sorts of discussions in the past.

McIlheran goes on to note that an anti-euthanasia expert (really—aren’t all sane people against euthanasia??) is “worried” because she’s heard that hospitals are making increased requests for living wills. Ummm—what’s the problem with that? Wouldn’t that allow the patient and his or her family to guide the course of treatment? Isn’t that what conservatives like Palin want?

The expert also warns that the disabled will be pressured to sign do-not-resuscitate orders. She doesn’t offer any data to support her assertion, nor does McIlheran.

Health care reform’s threat to disabled people is a favorite talking point of professional paranoiacs such as Palin and Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. They’re trying to riff on comments made by Rahm Emanuel’s bioethicist brother, Ezekiel, an adviser to Obama. gave this one a zero on its Truth-O-Meter:

To make the sensational claim that Emanuel says health care should not be extended to the disabled is a gross distortion of his position, lifted out of context from an academic paper in which he poses philosophical ideas but doesn't necessary endorse them. Emanuel's hefty medical record also counts for something, as well his unequivocal public position against euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide.

McIlheran then describes two cancer-stricken people who had bad experiences with Oregon’s taxpayer-financed health plan. Oregon is one of two states in which residents may decide to end their lives, with the proper medical guidance.

McIlheran then conflates the public option with assisted suicide. Yes, the state of Oregon did offer to pay for a woman’s hospice care or for doctor-assisted suicide—after paying for her cancer treatments. And the way in which the state informed that woman was insensitive. But to spread fears that a publicly funded plan is going to nudge people into taking their lives, as McIlheran insinuates, is really abhorrent. I mean, the current Medicare system covers seniors. If they wanted to save a few pennies by denying care to seniors, they could do it now. But it’s not happening. In fact, by and large seniors are happy with Medicare.

McIlheran then provides this whopper:

When private insurers do this [deny care], we deplore it, and it scares other customers, a check upon such behavior. A government-dominated system, however, faces no such competitive fears and would have a free hand to decide who'd gain enough from public spending and who wouldn't. We already know Congress' hoped-for savings are illusory and that cost pressures will be huge. Why would the federal government react differently to those pressures than did Oregon?

Ummm… the problem with private insurers is that there is no check upon their behavior. You’re stuck with whatever plan your employer chooses or what you can afford on your own. (That’s if you’re lucky and you have coverage.) Unfortunately, private insurers are too willing to deny coverage to those who need it most or they charge so much that people go without coverage. A public plan would be a check upon their behavior, as would reforms that would force them to actually cover people who are sick, no matter what the cost.

And why on earth would the government offer a “goodbye pill,” as McIlheran puts it, if assisted suicide is outlawed everywhere but Oregon and Washington? That argument only makes sense if you’re more interested in feeding people’s fears instead of attempting to enlighten them with facts.

Hint for the Journal Sentinel: Some helpful fact-checking resources on health care:

Seven falsehoods about health care on health care

Truthfulness of partisan claims about health care


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