Though the idea that the health care overhaul bills call for "death panels" that would decide end-of-life care has been widely debunked, the Senate Finance Committee is dropping the controversial provision from its version.
Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, the panel's top Republican and one of six committee members trying to negotiate a bipartisan bill, said in a statement today that the provision "could be misinterpreted and implemented incorrectly."
The provision in the House bill would allow Medicare to pay doctors for voluntary counseling sessions on end-of-life issues, including living wills and hospice as an option for the terminally ill. It is supported by the American Medical Association and the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.
But the provision has generated a huge uproar, particularly after Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, called it "downright evil."
In a Facebook posting late Wednesday night, Palin argued that the elderly and ailing could be coerced into accepting minimal end-of-life care to reduce health care costs. "With all due respect, it's misleading for the president to describe this section as an entirely voluntary provision that simply increases the information offered to Medicare recipients," she wrote. "It's all just more evidence that the Democratic legislative proposals will lead to health care rationing."
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said today that "death panels" are the biggest misconception the administration is trying to rebut.
In an email to Obama supporters and a letter posted on the White House website, senior adviser David Axelrod included the claim that the health care proposals would encourage "euthanasia" among eight "common myths."
"It does not. Itís a malicious myth that reform would encourage or even require euthanasia for seniors. For seniors who want to consult with their family and physicians about end-of life decisions, reform will help to cover these voluntary, private consultations for those who want help with these personal and difficult family decisions," Axelrod wrote.
In his town hall on health care on Tuesday in Portsmouth, N.H., President Obama took on the issue head-on.
"The rumor that's been circulating a lot lately is this idea that somehow the House of Representatives voted for 'death panels' that will basically pull the plug on grandma because we've decided it's too expensive to let her live anymore," he told the crowd.
"It turns out that I guess this arose out of a provision in one of the House bills that allowed Medicare to reimburse people for consultations about end-of-life care, setting up living wills, the availability of hospice, et cetera. So the intention of the members of Congress was to give people more information so that they could handle issues of end-of-life care when they're ready, on their own terms. It wasn't forcing anybody to do anything. This is I guess where the rumor came from.
"And somehow it's gotten spun into this idea of 'death panels.' I am not in favor of that....I want to clear the air here."
In his statement, Grassley said, "On the end-of-life issue, there's a big difference between a simple educational campaign, as some advocates want, and the way the House committee-passed bill pays physicians to advise patients about end of life care and rates physician quality of care based on the creation of and adherence to orders for end-of-life care, while at the same time creating a government-run program that is likely to lead to the rationing of care for everyone.
"On the Finance Committee, we are working very hard to avoid unintended consequences by methodically working through the complexities of all of these issues and policy options. That methodical approach continues.† We dropped end-of-life provisions from consideration entirely because of the way they could be misinterpreted and implemented incorrectly. Maybe others can defend a bill like the Pelosi bill that leaves major issues open to interpretation, but I can't."
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.