‘Death panel’ myth persists
Study shows one-third of Americans still believe false claim

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By Ann Imse
Colorado Public News

As the Supreme Court is about to rule on the constitutionality of the health care law, one-third of Americans are worrying about a part of the legislation that isn’t there.

A Kaiser Family Foundation’s tracking poll [pdf] found in March that 36 percent of respondents erroneously believe that the law “would allow a government panel to make decisions about end-of-life care for people on Medicare.” Another 20 percent said they are not sure whether it does.

The foundation, a nonpartisan organization that provides health policy analysis, reports the “prevalence of these misconceptions is essentially the same it was at the end of 2010.”

The death panel myth that won’t die made national headlines in 2009 when former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin used the term “death panel” on her Facebook page. Her assertion falsely claimed the government would be able to decide whether people like her parents or baby with Down Syndrome were worthy of healthcare. Various conservative lawmakers, broadcasters and pundits have since repeated and extended the claim.

In Colorado, though, none of the state’s four Republicans in Congress say the law provides for a board of bureaucrats who would decide who will live or die.

And Dr. Mark Earnest of the University of Colorado School of Medicine says flatly, “No, it’s not true.”

Earnest said the belief originated in a proposal to add to the health care law a provision to pay Medicare physicians for counseling people on end-of-life decision-making.

The myth persists because “it taps into a basic fear that people have of somehow government taking away their choices, and this fear of rationing,” he said.

Numerous journalists around the country have debunked the myth that the law includes any provision for government control of who will live and who will die. In 2009, the Tampa Bay Times-sponsored news fact-checking watchdog organization Politifact called the “death panel” story its “Lie of the Year”.

Both Politifact and Factcheck.org, a project sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, continue to report on variations on the theme, and continue to find the claims false.

Among Colorado’s Congressional Republicans, Rep. Mike Coffman, who represents a district south of Denver, distances himself from the concept most clearly. “Neither myself nor my office have ever used the term ‘death panels,’” he told Colorado Public News.

When constituents ask about the topic, Coffman says he sends a letter to provide background.

“Many people expressed concern over the inclusion of so-called “death panels” in the Democrat sponsored healthcare reform bill,” the letter says. The language “that caused this anxiety would have authorized Medicare to pay doctors for counseling patients regarding end of life care, if the patient so wishes.” The letter goes on to say that the provision was removed from the bill, reinstated in a regulation and then eliminated again.

Before the bill passed, Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs was quoted in The Gazette as telling a crowd in Pueblo that such counseling might cause people to “feel pressure to maybe forgo treatment that they would otherwise be able to have to save the country money, or something like that.”

Today, some conservatives who are seeking justification for the term “death panels” cite the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) created by the health care law as the problem. The purpose of the IPAB is to recommend cuts to keep Medicare spending in line.

In an email this week, Lamborn’s spokeswoman told Colorado Public News that references to “death panels” refer to the IPAB. However, the email went on to note correctly the board will not make end-of-life decisions for people. It “will not have the direct ability to approve or disapprove of specific medical care for individuals,” the Lamborn email said.

Based on their official websites and past statements, Colorado GOP Reps. Scott Tipton and Cory Gardner dislike the board but don’t claim it will decide life-and-death issues. Neither responded to questions over two days.

Gardner, who represents northeastern Colorado, says on his website the board is “devastating for seniors,” but provides no explanation.

Tipton comes closest to propagating the false “death panel” claim, indicating on his website that IPAB will “make critical health care decisions for patients, jeopardize seniors’ access to care and put federal bureaucrats in the middle of doctor-patient relationships.”

Tipton, who represents a swath of Colorado from Pueblo to the Western Slope, was quoted in the Pueblo Chieftain last August saying a federal panel will decide whether seniors get hip replacements and other surgeries.

In fact, the law explicitly states IPAB proposals to Congress “shall not include any recommendation to ration health care.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act is scheduled to be handed down this month.

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