Death panels, euthanasia, abortion: health care fiction and facts

Death panels. Euthanasia. ACORN. Abortion. Immigrants. An insurance industry-backed right-wing smear campaign wants to inject these highly emotional terms into the health reform debate in order to scare people into opposing a major overhaul of the broken health insurance system.

The truth is, however, that for the 50 million Americans who go without insurance and the nearly 85 million who go without it at some point each year, the broken health system is an already very scary place. And for the millions of workers and small business owners who face rising premium rates, the potential loss of coverage is a nightmare.

The claims about reform made by insurance company-financed anti-health groups like Conservatives for Patients’ Rights or Americans for Prosperity and their Republican Party allies are fabrications or outright distortions of the health reform proposals in Congress.

For example, reading off an insurance lobbyist’s set of talking points, Sarah Palin, who quit last month as governor of Alaska due to job pressures, claimed health reform would create ‘death panels’ that, she implied, would give government bureaucrats power to decide when seniors should die.

The truth is nothing of the sort. Instead, the bill would provide families with resources to create living wills, in order to help them avoid the controversies that sometimes occur when a loved one dies unexpectedly. Private insurance companies and even the government already provide these services; the bill would simple include it as part of the proposed public insurance program.

Notably, Sarah Palin, the insurance lobbyists and other Republican Party hacks neglect to mention that the AARP, the country’s largest association of retired people, supports this provision.

Next, Republican Party personalities insist that the public insurance program is a way to force people into a ‘government-run’ program they say would be less efficient than private insurance companies and would reduce the quality of care.

The truth is that the health insurance system is broken now. It fails to provide affordable access and quality of care to tens of millions of Americans right now. The US insurance system costs more than any other country in the world and covers fewer people by proportion than any industrialized country.

The growing cost of premiums have wiped out the small gains in take home pay that working families may have realized over the past 10 years. According to a report by the White House Council of Economic Advisers, small businesses pay an extra 18 percent or so over what larger employers pay for the health benefits they provide for their employees – when they can afford them.

On top of that, medical issues cause more than 60 percent of the bankruptcies in this country each year. And for too many millions of workers, the loss of a job or moving to a new state means the loss of health insurance.

Right now, insurance company bureaucrats use arbitrary, small-print rules to deny coverage. For example, a recent congressional investigation revealed that many companies use a process called rescission (which literally means to cut you off) to deny coverage to people, even when they pay their premiums on time. When someone gets a serious illness that may cost a lot of money to care for, some insurance companies will scrutinize that person’s health records to find some excuse – no matter how small or unrelated to the current illness – to deny coverage.

The three largest insurance companies alone used rescission 20,000 times in a recent five-year period to save $300 million. Other media reports have revealed that insurance company bureaucrats who saved their corporations loads of cash this way got bonuses based on the number of cases they denied.

No wonder those companies are fighting so hard to stop reform.

In addition, many insurance companies refuse to provide insurance coverage to people who they say have ‘pre-existing conditions,’ a practice that is currently legal in 45 states. A study by the independent Commonwealth Fund revealed that in 2007 alone more than 12 million people were denied coverage because of ‘pre-existing conditions.’

Even further, in many parts of the country, one or two insurance companies hold virtual monopolies over the market in the states they operate in. For example, two companies in Montana claim at least 85 percent of the market there, according to a recent study by the Department of Health and Human Services.

In Michigan, a single company controls almost two-thirds of the market. In South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Missouri and several other states, insurance companies have carved out about half of the market. Why would they want to change that?

As proposed in Congress, health reform would provide everyone with more choices and protections: If an individual or business is satisfied with the coverage or benefits they have, they could choose to keep them. Individuals will be able to keep insurance plans when they move from jobs to job or state to state. Small business owners will earn a credit for providing coverage to their employees and will avoid higher taxes or other costs associated with the new system. Discrimination based on pre-existing conditions or through the process of rescission will be eliminated. A public insurance program will be put in place for people without coverage or who have been denied coverage, and it will challenge the virtual monopoly insurance companies have. The public insurance plan will be mandated to provide the same quality and choices (of doctors and hospitals and clinics) that people have in the private insurance market. Typical anti-reform talking heads also forget to mention that major doctors’ associations such as the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American College of Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Student Association, Doctors for America and the National Physicians Alliance have all endorsed the health reform bills in Congress.


To derail the momentum of the legislative process, opponents of health reform are claiming that reform would expand abortion access and would provide government money for abortions. They want to make abortion a central part of the debate because they would like to eliminate existing private insurance coverage for abortions.

Right now, 86 percent of private insurers provide coverage for abortions. The public insurance program, because it would be funded primarily by paid premiums, should operate no differently. Unfortunately, the federal prohibition on providing tax dollars directly for abortions will likely remain in tact.

On the immigration issue, anti-reform groups are eyeing an anti-discrimination clause in the House health bill to claim the reform will provide all kinds of taxpayer dollars for undocumented immigrants. What they neglect to say, however, is that the bill forbids the inclusion of undocumented immigrants in the public program.

Opponents of anti-immigrant laws are actually critical of this latter measure because it may put the whole public in some danger by excluding a group of people, estimated to number 12 million, from the new insurance system.

Do you wonder why the insurance lobby and Republican Party leaders result to such fabrications and distractions in order to avoid an honest discussion about health reform? Unfortunately, it is the only means available for them to rile up their base of supporters in order to defend the indefensible, and insurance industry gone wild.


Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu teaches courses on diversity, intercultural competence, migration, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan. He is the author of The Collectivity of Life: Spaces of Social Mobility and the Individualism Myth, and a former editor of Political Affairs.