By Earl Blumenauer
Op-Ed Contributor, The New York Times
November 15, 2009, Washington
I didn’t mean to kill Grandma. I didn’t even mean to create death panels.
But now that I and my fellow lawmakers in the House have passed a health care bill, I’m finally free to explain what I learned as the author of the now-famous end-of-life provisions. My experiences during the bizarre controversies of the summer should provide a note of caution about what potential troubles and political distortions might lie ahead as health care legislation moves forward in the Senate, through the reconciliation process and toward a final bill.
This proposal was not even my top health-care priority. During my 13 years in the House, I have written and co-sponsored numerous provisions to change the way the government pays for health care. I am much more interested in extending coverage to the uninsured and moving away from “fee for service” Medicare, which rewards volume over value.
In this context, I found it perverse that Medicare would pay for almost any medical procedure, yet not reimburse doctors for having a thoughtful conversation to prepare patients and families for the delicate, complex and emotionally demanding decisions surrounding the end of life. So when I was working on the health care bill, I included language directing Medicare to cover a voluntary discussion with a doctor once every five years about living wills, power of attorney and end-of-life treatment preferences.
I was especially committed to this issue because helping patients and their families clarify what they want and need is not only good for all Americans, but also a rare common denominator of health care politics. Indeed, the majority of Congressional Republicans supported the similar provisions for terminally ill elderly patients that were part of the 2003 prescription drug bill. In the spring of 2008, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska issued a proclamation that stated the importance of end-of-life planning.
With this history in mind, I reached out to Republicans, including conservative members of Congress who often expressed support for the concept, and worked with national experts in palliative care and advocacy groups in devising the end-of-life provision. My Republican co-sponsor, Charles Boustany of Louisiana, told me he had many end-of-life conversations as a cardiovascular surgeon but unfortunately they often were too late. He wished that he could have spoken to patients and their families when they could have reflected properly, not when surgery was just hours away.
While continuing to work on other important health care reform provisions, I was confident that in this area, we had made a contribution that would ultimately be in the final bill. It might even serve as a bridge for bipartisan compromise as we entered the frustratingly contentious end game of finishing the overall legislation.
But the battle lines were being drawn. Little did I know how deep the trenches would be dug, nor how truth would be one of the first, and most obvious, casualties.
The House Ways and Means Committee “mark-up session” of the health care bill, on July 16, lasted all day and into the night. Republican colleagues offered dozens of amendments aimed at numerous provisions. Nowhere was there a single proposal to change the end-of-life language, nor a word spoken in opposition. Not a single word.
Then Betsy McCaughey entered the fray. A former lieutenant governor of New York, Ms. McCaughey had gained notoriety in the 1990s by attacking the Clinton health plan. In a radio interview, she attacked the end-of-life provisions in the health care legislation, claiming it “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 St. Petersburg Times’s fact-checking Web site PolitiFact quickly excoriated her: “McCaughey isn’t just wrong; she’s spreading a ridiculous falsehood.”
But in today’s vicious news cycle, lies take on lives of their own on Web sites, blogs and e-mail chains and go viral in seconds. Ms. McCaughey’s claims were soon widely circulated in the thirst for ammunition against the Democrats’ health care reform plan. “Mandatory counseling for all seniors at a minimum of every five years, more often if the seasoned citizen is sick or in a nursing home,” was how Rush Limbaugh described the provision a week later. “We can’t have counseling for mothers who are thinking of terminating their pregnancy, but we can go in there and counsel people about to die,” he added.
Two days later, the lie found its way into Republican politicians’ statements. “This provision may start us down a treacherous path toward government-encouraged euthanasia if enacted into law,” declared the House Republican leader, John Boehner of Ohio, and Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan. I was shocked. This really struck at the heart of what I was trying to do — to build consensus.
Still, nothing could prepare me for what came next. As luck would have it, on July 28 I was presiding over the House of Representatives when my Republican colleagues decided to have a filibuster of one-minute speeches attacking the Democratic health care reform proposals, or rather, the proposals as seen through their skewed vision.
Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina made the singularly outrageous claim that the Republican version of health care reform “is pro-life because it will not put seniors in a position of being put to death by their government.” More groups and politicians repeated and exaggerated the claims.
The most bizarre moment came on Aug. 7 when Sarah Palin used the term “death panels” on her Facebook page. She wrote: “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.”
There is, of course, nothing even remotely like this in the bill, yet other politicians joined the death panel chorus. On “This Week With George Stephanopoulos,” the former Republican House speaker, Newt Gingrich, refused an opportunity to set the record straight. Instead, Mr. Gingrich noted “the bill’s 1,000 pages,” as if the number of pages was an excuse for his misrepresentation, and then declared, “You’re asking us to trust turning power over to the government, when there clearly are people in America who believe in establishing euthanasia.” The Speaker Gingrich I served with a decade ago would have been appalled at the blatant and repeated falsehoods of the Newt Gingrich of 2009.
Such behavior is a graphic example of how the issue of health care was hijacked. Town hall meetings became dominated by people shouting down their opponents and yelling misinformation. Some town hall participants even told politicians to keep government out of their Medicare — something that would be difficult to pull off since Medicare is a government program.
To be fair, some sincerely believed what they were saying to be true, but that only made them more indignant when others challenged them or tried to give them correct information.
The news media was a particular culprit in this drama. This was not just Fox News; seemingly all the national news organizations monitored any meetings they could find between lawmakers and constituents, looking for flare-ups, for YouTube moments. The meetings that involved thoughtful exchanges or even support for the proposals would never find their way on air; coverage was given only to the most outrageous behavior, furthering distorting the true picture.
My office quickly produced testimonials from 300 respected professionals and organizations to set the record straight. Articles followed about how Republicans themselves had supported such provisions. Sites like PolitiFact and Factcheck.org as well as national organizations like the AARP pushed back on the lies.
It didn’t matter. The “death panel” episode shows how the news media, after aiding and abetting falsehood, were unable to perform their traditional role of reporting the facts. By lavishing uncritical attention on the most exaggerated claims and extreme behavior, they unleashed something that the truth could not dispel.
There was a troubling new dynamic: People like Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, were now parroting these falsehoods in their town meetings and letting it drive their policy decisions. (Mr. Grassley: “We should not have a government program that determines if you’re going to pull the plug on Grandma.”) When the most extreme elements peddling false information can cow senior members of Congress into embracing their claims, it does not bode well for either policymaking or for the Republican Party.
ON Sept. 9, President Obama spoke about the health care reform plan to Congress. Although his speech was more thoughtful and less partisan than much of what I’ve seen from presidents in my years in Congress, it was greeted by the call of “You lie!” from a backbencher from South Carolina, Joe Wilson. The accusation came as President Obama was attempting to debunk the many myths about the health care bill; Mr. Wilson’s outburst was the culmination of the summer’s frenzy, of everything that my end-of-life provisions had unwittingly set in motion.
The resulting support from the right wing and the inability of Republican leadership to acknowledge Mr. Wilson’s behavior as crude, unprecedented and inappropriate is telling. The Republican Party has been taken captive by these tactics, the extremists and their own rhetoric.
In a curious way, however, Joe Wilson’s eruption helped turn this particular debate full circle. Energized reform advocates began to push back. Support for the measure increased, and I began to hear, beneath the anger, some honest skepticism, along with an accurate complaint from fellow lawmakers that the language in the provisions was not as clear as it could be. The end-of-life provisions, I am proud to say, are in the bill that the House approved and sent to the Senate, where there is a reasonable chance of passage.
The inability to protect even the smallest element of bipartisan consensus from being used as a savage weapon of political attack makes lawmakers’ tasks harder, and the American public even more disillusioned. But perhaps the troubles of the summer and the success of the fall will provide a road map that leads to members of Congress finally enacting health care reform — and working together again on the long list of America’s unfinished business.
Earl Blumenauer is a Democratic representative from Oregon.
Originally published here in the New York Times, November 14, 2009