by Kenneth Lin
First posted on Common Sense Family Doctor on 12/08/11
In February, I predicted that Don Berwick would not survive the partisan politics surrounding his recess appointment as administrator of CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services), and regrettably, Dr. Berwick indeed stepped down from that position last week despite a number of notable accomplishments in his too-short tenure. Speaking yesterday at the annual national forum of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, which he led for nearly two decades, Dr. Berwick struck back fiercely at politicians who have used the myth of “death panels” to oppose health reform efforts, and others who he called the “true rationers” of health care. In his own words:
Cynicism grips Washington. It grips Washington far too much, far too much for a place that could instead remind us continually of the grandeur of democracy. … Cynicism diverts energy from the great moral test. It toys with deception, and deception destroys. Let me give you an example: the outrageous rhetoric about “death panels” – the claim, nonsense, fabricated out of nothing but fear and lies, that some plot is afoot to, literally, kill patients under the guise of end-of-life care. That is hogwash. It is purveyed by cynics; it employs deception; and it destroys hope. It is beyond cruelty to have subjected our elders, especially, to groundless fear in the pure service of political agendas.
The truth, of course, is that there are no “death panels” here, and there never have been. The truth is that, as our society has aged and as we have learned to care well for the chronically ill, many of us face years in the twilight our lives when our health fades and our need for help grows and changes. Luckily, palliative care – care that brings comfort, company, and spiritual and emotional support to people with advanced illness and their families – has grown at its best into a fine art and a better science. The principle is simple: that we can and should offer people the very best of care at all stages of their lives, including the twilight.
The truth is, furthermore, that patient-centered care demands that the ways in which a person is cared for ought always to be under his or her control. The patient is the boss; we are the servants. They, not others, should direct their own care, and the doctors, nurses, and hospitals should know and honor what the patient wants. … It is one of the great and needless tragedies of this stormy time in health care that the “death panel” rhetoric has denied patients the care that they want, denied caregivers the information they need to give that care, and denied our nation access to a mature, open, informed, and balanced discussion of the challenge of advanced illness and the commitment to individual dignity. It is a travesty.
If you really want to talk about “death panels,” let’s think about what happens if we cut back programs of needed, life-saving care for Medicaid beneficiaries and other poor people in America. What happens in a nation willing to say a senior citizen of marginal income, “I am sorry you cannot afford your medicines, but you are on your own?” What happens if we choose to defund our nation’s investments in preventive medicine and community health, condemning a generation to avoidable risks and unseen toxins?
Maybe a real death panel is a group of people who tell health care insurers that it is okay to take insurance away from people because they are sick or are at risk for becoming sick. Enough of “death panels”! How about all of us – all of us in America – becoming a life panel, unwilling to rest easy, in what is still the wealthiest nation on earth, while a single person within our borders lacks access to the health care they need as a basic human right? Now, that is a conversation worth having.
And, while we are at it, what about “rationing?” The distorted and demagogic use of that term is another travesty in our public debate. In some way, the whole idea of improvement – the whole, wonderful idea that brings us –thousands – together this very afternoon – is that rationing – denying care to anyone who needs it is not necessary. That is, it is not necessary if, and only if, we work tirelessly and always to improve the way we try to meet that need.
The true rationers are those who impede improvement, who stand in the way of change, and who thereby force choices that we can avoid through better care. It boggles my mind that the same people who cry “foul” about rationing an instant later argue to reduce health care benefits for the needy, to defund crucial programs of care and prevention, and to shift thousands of dollars of annual costs to people – elders, the poor, the disabled – who are least able to bear them.
When the 17 million American children who live in poverty cannot get the immunizations and blood tests they need, that is rationing. When disabled Americans lack the help to keep them out of institutions and in their homes and living independently, that is rationing. When tens of thousands of Medicaid beneficiaries are thrown out of coverage, and when millions of Seniors are threatened with the withdrawal of preventive care or cannot afford their medications, and when every single one of us lives under the sword of Damocles that, if we get sick, we lose health insurance, that is rationing. And it is beneath us as a great nation to allow that to happen.
Kenny Lin, MD is a DC-based family physician who writes at Common Sense Family Doctor.