Interesting Times: On “Death Panels” and the Health Policy Debate

This New York Times article is worth a look.

Reporters Jim Rutenberg and Jackie Calmes trace how the “death panel” rumors that are currently dominating the national debate over health care reform have grown—one might say metastasized—over time, and it names the people responsible for propagating these falsehoods.

As our readers know, at AJN we usually avoid taking sides in partisan political fights. We focus on issues that are important to nurses and their patients, and when we publish articles that concern health care policymaking, we try to present the facts as objectively as possible. When there’s a legitimate debate about the best approach to achieving a particular goal, we try to present all sides with equal objectivity, in the belief that readers can make up their own minds when presented with unbiased information.

Unfortunately, people who should and probably do know better are not upholding similar standards of objectivity and reason in the current debate. National political and media figures are willfully undermining sensible discussion of desperately needed reform efforts, misinforming the public and stirring up baseless fears for their own political advantage and financial gain. It therefore becomes increasingly difficult to cover health care policymaking without taking some note of the political forces that are distorting the very terms of the debate.

Even topics that would appear, at first glance, to be ideologically neutral have become fodder for the fear-mongering machine—I’m thinking of comparative effectiveness research, on which I’m now preparing a news article for the October issue of AJN; and, of course, the proposal that gave rise to the “death panel” phrase, Medicare funding for optional end-of-life counseling for the terminally ill.

Just for the record, according to the Times article:

There is nothing in any of the legislative proposals that would call for the creation of death panels or any other governmental body that would cut off care for the critically ill as a cost-cutting measure. But over the course of the past few months, early, stated fears from anti-abortion conservatives that Mr. Obama would pursue a pro-abortion, pro-euthanasia agenda, combined with twisted accounts of actual legislative proposals that would provide financing for optional consultations with doctors about hospice care and other “end of life” services, fed the rumor to the point where it overcame the debate.

We’d be interested in hearing from you on this topic (but please do keep it civil). What do you think of the state of the debate on health care reform? What are you hearing from colleagues, patients, family members and friends about Medicare coverage for end-of-life counseling?

—Jim Stubenrauch, senior editor

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2009-08-14T15:01:16+00:00 August 14th, 2009|health care policy|2 Comments
Senior editor/social media strategy, American Journal of Nursing, and editor of AJN Off the Charts.


  1. […] this option? Compare this silence to the amount of coverage devoted to false claims about “death panels“ in the media in recent weeks. Is this imbalance in coverage serving the interests of the […]

  2. ninjanurse August 16, 2009 at 9:09 pm

    I worked in community health and met a lot of people who were suffering for lack of access to health care. More than that, so much unnecessary suffering, and such waste when a person whose health was finally ruined from neglect would end up on Medicaide.
    Reform can’t come soon enough for me. A single payer plan would be best, but today it looks like a public option won’t happen.
    People need real reform, not just slightly cheaper insurance.

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