Weak White House helps resurrect ‘death panel’ lie

Published 3:25 pm Thursday, January 13, 2011

Now that the Mighty Republican Art Players have retaken control of the House of Representatives, we must pay the price in symbolic gestures. With the GOP’s ability to accomplish its alleged goals circumscribed by the Democratic Senate and President Obama’s veto, there’s no limit to their ability to strike theatrical poses.

The GOP’s FOX-intoxicated “base” will believe anything. Witness the resurrection of Sarah Palin’s “death panels” falsehood. Designated the 2009 “Lie of the Year” by Politifacts.com, the fact-checking website of the St. Petersburg Times, Palin’s grotesque inversion of reality spooked many senior voters into believing that “Obamacare” would bring mercy killing to the United States.

What we’re fixing to find out as Speaker Boehner stage-manages a purely symbolic vote to repeal the 2010 law is whether anybody outside the Tea Party can be duped again. Also whether Democrats, given a second chance to explain “Obamacare,” can expose the GOP’s fraudulent claims.

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So far, the omens aren’t good. Thanks to an astonishingly dumb e-mail by a Democratic congressman, some characteristic pussyfooting by The New York Times and the customary brazen dishonesty of right-wing media, Palin’s imaginary euthanasia is back in the news. Once again, the White House punted.

But hold that thought. The entire farce is a perfect example of how politics makes people stupid. In their private lives, millions of Americans grapple intelligently with the kinds of harrowing decisions created by modern medical technology. There’s hardly anybody old enough to remember, say, Captain Kangaroo who hasn’t attended a loved one’s last days unsure about how to proceed. Who decides? What would your loved one have wanted? Would that have been the right decision?

Without getting maudlin, I shall never forget the surgeon who advised my siblings and me that he’d refuse to perform a proposed operation that might have prolonged our 92-year-old mother’s suffering for a couple of weeks without curing her terminal illness, assuming she survived the ordeal.

As he was the only surgeon within a 150 miles qualified to do the procedure, he spared us having to vote among ourselves. Medicare would have paid a handsome fee. The doctor chose compassion. Some of us needed his permission to let go. Feelings ran high, but in the aftermath, we all believed he’d done the right thing.

It’s precisely to assist doctors and their patients in making such tough choices that Section 1233 of the health care law existed. It proposed to pay doctors for counseling patients one-on-one about end-of-life decisions.

The sessions would be entirely voluntary, and strictly between doctor and patient. No committees, panels, nor oversight, No required outcomes. A patient might tell his doctor to keep him alive at all costs. Or not. The doctor would explain his or her ethical responsibilities. Insurance carriers would pay for the appointment. The end.

Then Sarah Palin posted on Facebook: “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, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society’ whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.”

The right-wing noise machine roared into action. Millions of Americans, seniors in particular, were taken in. Surely a trusted figure like Sarah Palin wouldn’t lie. Rather than waste months trying to persuade gullible voters that Palin had manufactured a hysterical falsehood out of thin air, the Senate removed Section 1233 from the health care bill.

That was that until a Jan. 1 story in The New York Times revealed that new Medicare regulations propounded by the Obama administration would cover “voluntary advance-care planning.” A preamble explained that research had shown that “advance care planning improves end-of-life care and patient and family satisfaction and reduces stress, anxiety and depression in surviving relatives.”

Too polite to expose Palin’s fraud, The Times explained that her claims about Section 1233 were merely “unsubstantiated” — craven he-said, she-said journalism of most timid kind. It also quoted a celebratory e-mail sent by Oregon Democratic congressman Earl Blumenauer cautioning supporters not to send celebratory e-mails — the political equivalent of a man posting a nude photo of himself and his mistress on Facebook. What a doofus.

Except that the Obama administration had nothing to hide. Not that it’s prevented the usual suspects from the usual distortions. Columnist Cal Thomas trumpeted that Palin deserves an apology, as patients’ private appointments with their doctors would somehow “inevitably lead to bureaucrats deciding who is ‘fit’ to live and who is not.” How B follows from A, Thomas never explains.

A physician, the Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer never quite condemned the policy but railed against government by regulation — always bad when Democrats do it.

Rather than refight the battle, the White House caved.

Nothing prevents doctors and patients from talking anyway.

(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at eugenelyons2@yahoo.com.)