Death panels are back!

Good news– the “death panels” are back!  Of course, if you do not rely on Fox News or Sarah Palin’s facebook feed for your news, you realize that “death panel” was actually Republican shorthand for simply reimbursing doctors for taking time to address end-of-life issues with their patients.   And just so we’re clear, that’s an unequivocally good thing.  Anyway, it may not be part of the ACA, but apparently Medicare is simply going to re-write the regulations on the matter:

When a proposal to encourage end-of-life planning touched off a political storm over “death panels,” Democrats dropped it from legislation to overhaul the health care system. But the Obama administration will achieve the same goal by regulation, starting Jan. 1.

Under the new policy, outlined in aMedicare regulation, the government will pay doctors who advise patients on options for end-of-life care, which may include advance directives to forgo aggressive life-sustaining treatment.

The article does a really nice job explaining how increasing these sorts of conversations is a very good thing for patients.  I’ll skip the excerpt on that, as the fact that you’re here instead of Palin’s facebook page means you get that.  It does go on to talk about the potential political fall-out, which intrigued me:

“While we are very happy with the result, we won’t be shouting it from the rooftops because we aren’t out of the woods yet,” Mr. Blumenauer’s office said in an e-mail in early November to people working with him on the issue. “This regulation could be modified or reversed, especially if Republican leaders try to use this small provision to perpetuate the ‘death panel’ myth.”

Moreover, the e-mail said: “We would ask that you not broadcast this accomplishment out to any of your lists, even if they are ‘supporters’ — e-mails can too easily be forwarded.”

The e-mail continued: “Thus far, it seems that no press or blogs have discovered it, but we will be keeping a close watch and may be calling on you if we need a rapid, targeted response. The longer this goes unnoticed, the better our chances of keeping it.”

In the interview, Mr. Blumenauer said, “Lies can go viral if people use them for political purposes.”

There’s the rub.  So, do Republicans bring back this cynical death panel non-sense or find a new target?  Or was that just an effective ploy in trying to prevent the law, but less so in the future political maneuvers they’ll attempt of de-funding, etc.  If they bring back the death panel nonsense after its been so thoroughly debunked, it will be quite clear just what their “moral values” are (i.e., more suffering for terminally ill patients).

Finally, I would be remiss as a Political Science professor if I didn’t point out that this whole episode also shows how important political control of the bureaucracy can be.  There’s a lot that can be accomplished simply through changing bureaucratic regulations, regardless of legislation (next up, EPA regulation of carbon emissions).


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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