Meet the Death Panel

Today, President Obama will hold a town hall meeting in New Hampshire. As we all know, town halls nationwide have become snakepits, featuring gullible fools whipped up into a frenzy by irresponsible politicians and media nuts making insane allegations. The Republican base has never seemed so ignorant, so ridiculous, or so crazy. And those irresponsible politicians are playing these chumps by pouring gasoline on this wingnut fire.

The newest insanity making the rounds is fueled by something Sarah Palin wrote on Facebook.

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. Such a system is downright evil.

That's right, if health care reform goes through, the United States will go fullblown Spartan and start pitching "imperfect" babies over a cliff. I'm not sure which is worse, that Sarah Palin would make something this insane up for political gain or that she thinks Americans are stupid enough to believe it.

But this is America -- home of UFO conspiracy theories and TV shows that take haunted houses seriously -- there is nothing so stupid, so insane, so ridiculous that someone won't believe every word of it. If Sarah Palin says that people will have to justify their existence before a "death panel," then there aren't going to be any shortage of morons who'll take that as Gospel. Stupid is a pre-existing condition.

But the truth is that there are already "death panels" in the US. Decisions about health care are already made by people who aren't physicians. And people die as a result.

Nataline Sarkisyan died in 2007 after being denied a liver transplant. It wasn't her doctors who chose not to give her the transplant, it was her insurer. Since the outcome wasn't clear, CIGNA refused the treatment as "experimental" -- although there wasn't anything experimental about it. Nataline's doctors said it was medically necessary. This turned into a public relations nightmare for CIGNA and they finally reversed their decision. But not before she died. Her parents learned that the treament had been approved after she'd been declared dead.

"CIGNA Health Corporation literally, maliciously killed her... they conciously disregarded her life," said attorney Mark Geragos. "And they did that for one specific reason: they did not want to pay for her after-care."

Anyone who thinks insurance companies are in the business of helping people is fooling themselves. Insurance companies are in the business of making money. In June, insurance executives testified before congress on the issue of "rescission" -- the practice of pulling insurance contracts. None would promise to work at reducing the number of rescissions.

[LA Times:]

Blue Cross of California encouraged employees through performance evaluations to cancel the health insurance policies of individuals with expensive illnesses, Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) charged at the start of a congressional hearing today on the controversial practice known as rescission.

The state's largest for-profit health insurer told The Times 18 months ago that it did not tie employee performance evaluations to rescission activity. And executives with Blue Cross parent company WellPoint Inc. reiterated that position today.

But documents obtained by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and released today show that the company's employee performance evaluation program did include a review of rescission activity.

The documents show, for instance, that one Blue Cross employee earned a perfect score of "5" for "exceptional performance" on an evaluation that noted the employee's role in dropping thousands of policyholders and avoiding nearly $10 million worth of medical care.

WellPoint's Blue Cross of California subsidiary and two other insurers saved more than $300 million in medical claims by canceling more than 20,000 sick policyholders over a five-year period, the House committee said.

"When times are good, the insurance company is happy to sign you up and take your money in the form of premiums," Stupak said. "But when times are bad, and you are afflicted with cancer or some other life-threatening disease, it is supposed to honor its commitments and stand by you in your time of need... Instead, some insurance companies use a technicality to justify breaking its promise, at a time when most patients are too weak to fight back."

In fact, rescission is in many ways worse that Nataline Sarkisyan's situation was, since you don't have any insurance at all -- regardless of how much money you've paid in premiums. They keep the money, some insurance company employee gets a raise, and you get the shaft.

"This could reshape the debate," said Consumer Watchdog's Jerry Flanagan. "When insurance companies go under oath and admit they are canceling innocent patients when they get sick, it makes it very difficult for lawmakers to pass a law that requires every American to buy a policy or face a tax fine. It opens the way for a public option to hold the companies in check."

Which, of course, is exactly what insurers are afraid of. "The industry doesn't want to have any competitor," former CIGNA exec Wendell Potter told PBS's Bill Moyers. "In fact, over the course of the last few years, has been shrinking the number of competitors through a lot of acquisitions and mergers. So first of all, they don't want any more competition period. They certainly don't want it from a government plan that might be operating more efficiently than they are, that they operate. The Medicare program that we have here is a government-run program that has administrative expenses that are like three percent or so... [Insurers] spend about 20 cents of every premium dollar on overhead, which is administrative expense or profit. So they don't want to compete against a more efficient competitor."

People have their plans pulled for the most mundane of excuses. I almost wrote "reasons," but the reason is really always the same -- they have a condition that's about to become very expensive. In one case, a woman in Texas lost her coverage when she developed breast cancer. The insurer discovered that she'd once taken acne medicine that she didn't mention in her medical history. Needless to say, the medication had nothing to do with her cancer.

So, if you think Sarah Palin's "death panel" sounds like a real bad idea, then you need to talk to the insurance companies. They decide who will live and who will die based not on your "level of productivity in society," but on your ability to pay more in premiums than you take out in benefits. Insurance is basically a wager; you bet you're going to need more money for health care than you give the insurer. And the health insurance industry will do anything to welsh on that bet. Even if they have to pull your insurance or wait until you die to approve your treatment.

There's your "death panel." And Sarah Palin's defending them by default.


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