Clarence Page: Scaring seniors to death

Published 4:02 pm Friday, August 7, 2009

Is the White House losing the message war on health care?

Like other presidents, Barack Obama is pestered by myths and conspiracy theorists. He can easily ignore the “birthers,” who refuse to let facts get in the way of their misguided belief that Obama’s birth certificate is a fake. But if there is any rumor that he needs to squelch as soon as possible, it is the truly dangerous myth that he wants to kill seniors.
He faced that question head-on during a televised town hall at AARP headquarters in Washington last week.

“I have been told that there is a clause in there that everyone that’s Medicare age will be visited and told to decide how they wish to die, ” a woman named Mary asked the president.

Mary did not say where she was told this, but it is not hard to guess. Conservative bloggers, talk show hosts and House Republican Leader John Boehner, among other critics of Obama’s health care plans, have been spreading the idea that the House health care bill promotes euthanasia.

They take this notion from a provision in the bill that would provide Medicare coverage for an end-of-life consultation once every five years, if the patient wants it. If a person falls ill with a life-threatening disease, more frequent sessions would be allowed.
Ironically, similar end-of-life concepts have been a part of federal health care law since 1990 – with bipartisan support. But now that Republicans can use the language as a wedge between seniors and Democrats, lo and behold, it has become an alleged invitation to legal suicide.

They have been aided in this mission by a key figure in the killing of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s proposed health care reforms in the early 1990s. Former New York Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey, a conservative health care specialist, lit the spark on various op-ed pages and talk shows, including former Sen. Fred Thompson’s radio talk show.
There she told Thompson that “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.”

“The bill expressly says if you get sick somewhere in that five-year period, you have to go through that session again,” McCaughey continued, “all to do what is in societies best interest or your family’s best interest and cut your life short.”

Nonsense. The provision would require Medicare to pay for advanced care consultations, but it does not require individuals to take advantage of the benefit.

Nor does it require that a government bureaucrat intervene between the patient, the patient’s family and a doctor or nurse practitioner, as McCaughey insists it does.
Yet, in a telephone interview with me, McCaughey continued to insist that the counseling was “mandatory” when, in fact, it is optional. “I’m standing by that,” she said of the word “mandatory.”

She denied that she ever said, as Boehner implies, that the plan encouraged euthanasia. Still she characterized it as requiring seniors to be instructed in “how to cut your life short,” even though the legislation does not require anything of the sort. It does help, as Obama explained at the AARP town hall, patients and their families to receive end-of-life counseling. Is that a bad thing? Not at all, McCaughey agreed, as long as the government doesn’t get involved in it.

“These are such sacred issues of life and death,” she said. “Government should have nothing to do with it.” OK. The bill calls for government to fund the counseling and get out of the way, much like private insurers would.

And, by the way, let us not pretend that private insurers don’t take dollars and cents into account, too, when they decide who gets covered and what doesn’t get covered.
Even though most Americans tell pollsters they are satisfied with their current coverage, our system costs more and covers fewer people than those in other industrialized countries – and the problems of cost and coverage are getting worse. We need to have an honest debate. Our lives depend on it. But, of course, politics and political ideologies inevitably get in the way.

Obama has tried to learn from the Clintons’ mistakes. He’s turned the details of the plan over to Congress, but the prolonged debate and multiple bills have muddled his message while the Republicans have a simple bumper sticker: “Nope.”

Now opponents of the bill are adding another four-letter word: fear. Unfortunately this debate could be scaring seniors to death. Unlike the Clinton era, today’s voters have another ally on our side: Internet-age media. Obama showed during his campaign how to get his message out in a hurry. He needs to do that again, as soon as he figures out exactly what his message is.

E-mail Clarence Page at cpage(at), or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207.