Monday, December 27, 2010

December 27, 2010 - Putting the "Death Panel" Myth to Rest

A New York Times article published on Christmas Day reports the good news that sanity has finally prevailed in the halls of government, as further regulations connected with the landmark healthcare-reform legislation enable Medicare funding for advanced end-of-life planning.

This news comes - to my mind, anyway - with a particular sense of relief. Opponents of healthcare reform have cynically and cruelly exploited dying people for their own political gain, by raising up the myth of government "death panels." According to that improbable scenario, government bureaucrats would have played a role akin to that of the infamous Dr. Mengele at the Auschwitz concentration camp (he was the camp physician who decided, with a wave of his baton, which new prisoners would go to the barracks and which would be sent directly to the gas chambers).

What the original legislation, in fact, provided was money to pay for annual doctor's office visits - for those critically-ill patients who want them - at which the various options for end-of-life care would be explained. One significant option is hospice - the part of the medical community in which Claire works, providing bereavement counseling and support.

The recent news is that the Obama administration has quietly restored this funding - not through legislation this time, but through regulation-writing (it had been in the original bill, but was pulled out in reaction to the "death panel" kerfuffle).

I'm especially glad to see this funding restored because of situations I've seen arise time and again in my ministry (and which Claire sees much more often in hers). Far too often, patients avoid having the hospice discussion with their doctors and family members until death is imminent and it's too late for them to derive much benefit from hospice care. When patients' time on the program is measured in hours rather than days, there's not a lot the hospice team can do for them.

Hospice care is not intended to be delivered in such an accelerated time frame. Yes, it's designed for patients who are expected to live fewer than six months, but a lot can be accomplished in that period of time, improving significantly patients' comfort and quality of life.

Talking about hospice is NOT giving up on patients. Quite the contrary, it's about empowering seriously ill patients to live the remaining portion of their lives as they wish. If patients and their families decide to continue aggressive treatment, so be it. If they opt, instead, to go home to a hospital bed in the living room, with advanced pain control and unlimited visits from their grandchildren, then that's their decision and it ought to be respected.

Irrational fear of "death panels" has kept people off hospice care who should have been receiving it much sooner - and would very much have wanted it, had they understood the patient-centered philosophy behind it. This restored funding will allow doctors to plan significant time for consultations that will equip patients and family members to make their own, carefully considered decisions about backing off from aggressive treatment and focusing more on palliative care.

Time and again, I've heard bereaved family members say they wish their loved one had signed onto hospice earlier, but they just didn't have a sense of what hospice is all about until it was nearly too late.

Chalk this one up as a triumph for patients' rights: to make their own, well-informed healthcare choices.


LeighSW said...

You said it well! Amen and amen.

Jeanie said...

I agree! Amen.