The Truth About Death Panels


9-22-09, 9:51 am

The American Right-Wing’s long history of fear mongering has achieved new lows during the current debate on health care reform. By now most Americans have heard the phrase “death panel” as an all-purpose pejorative against the idea of a public health plan. On August 7th, the ubiquitous Sarah Palin introduced the term in a post on her Facebook page:

“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.”

The phrase soon caught on and became a staple on Fox News and other mainstream media outlets. Recognizing its effectiveness as propaganda, Republicans like Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley brought the idea of death panels closer to home when he railed against “a government run plan to decide when to pull the plug on Grandma.' While Obama and other Democrats offered reasonable explanations of their plan’s provisions to offer “end of life planning counseling sessions with a health care practitioner,” the idea of bureaucratic death panels continues to resonate with the public, and with good reason.Perhaps people sense what a recent study by the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee (CAN/NNOC) confirms.

Sarah Palin is right. Bureaucratic death panels really do exist.

But while Palin’s goal was to conjure fear of a federally funded Grim Reaper, the real threat comes from corporate bureaucrats making life and death decisions driven by the insurance industry’s bottom line.

Consider them For-Profit Death Panels.

The CNA/NNOC report cites several examples of patients dying due to necessary care being denied by private insurers. PacifiCare, California’s largest private insurer, denied a special procedure for treatment of bone cancer for Nick Colombo, a 17-year old from Placentia, California. After intense public protests, the insurance company reversed its decision, but the delay resulted in critical time lost, and Colombo ultimately died. In another case cited by the report, 17-year old Nataline Sarkisyan died after being denied a liver transplant by Cigna, California’s second-largest for-profit health insurance company. These are but two examples of a system that values shareholder profits and executive bonuses over human life. For-profit death panels cost these two teenagers their lives. Unfortunately, there are thousands of similar cases. The CNA/NNOC report found that during the first six months of 2009, PacifiCare rejected 40 percent of its claims while Cigna’s rejection rate was just under 33 percent.

Anyone satisfied with their current coverage should keep those numbers in mind.

According to Deborah Burger, RN, CNA/NNOC co-president, “…the reality for patients today is a daily, cold-hearted rejection of desperately needed medical care by the nation’s biggest and wealthiest insurance companies simply because they don’t want to pay for it.”

During a seven-year period in California, the six largest insurance companies rejected 47.7 million claims for care. As Burger wisely points out, “Every claim that is denied represents a real patient enduring pain and suffering. Every denial has real, sometimes fatal consequences. The United States remains the only country in the industrialized world where human lives are sacrificed for private profit.”

No wonder the U.S., among 30 industrialized nations, ranked last in life expectancy at birth for men and 24th for women.

A not-for-profit single payer system would provide healthcare for all Americans regardless of their age, gender, or class. A person’s ability to seek medical care should not be driven by their ability to pay. A society cannot proclaim its dedication to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” when access to life-sustaining medical care is dominated by the savage inequities of the so-called “free market.”

Socialists should embrace the term “For-profit death panel” as an accurate description of our current healthcare system. Instead of dismissing the idea as false, as Democrats and other defenders of the status quo were quick to do, we must continually stress the very real threat that corporate profits place on the lives of citizens. The capitalist healthcare system grants the power of life and death to corporate bureaucrats motivated by profits and shareholder value. Our support of single payer healthcare should be framed in this context. When engaging the public, we should ask, “Which is more important: corporate profits or the life of your child?” It’s not “socialized medicine” that’s looking to pull the plug on Grandma; it’s a corporate executive’s demand for higher profit margins that leads to the rationing and rejection of critical care.

As Socialists, we should be vigorous in promoting a single payer system and not shy away from the term death panels. For once, Sarah Palin was right, or at least half-right.

Our capitalist healthcare system is dominated by death panels—corporate death panels valuing profit over human life.