The Death Panel Rumors That Won’t Die

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One of the most telling moments in Obama’s New Hampshire town hall yesterday came at the very end, when one of the last questioners said:

I’m very, very concerned about the elderly. I don’t know if this is also correct, but I understand that a federal health board will sit in judgment of medical procedures and protocols to impose guidelines on all providers — when to withhold certain types of care — like, what is the point you get to when we say, I’m sorry that this cannot happen.

Now, Obama had already addressed the rumor about “death panels” in his opening remarks, and then a second time early on in the Q&A. So I give him credit for not prefacing his answer with a Jon Stewart-like “Oh, for f*ck’s sake…” And his response was pretty good. But the fear-mongering has obviously embedded itself in the heads of a fair number of people who approach the health reform debate like Stephen Colbert in a great segment last night with Jonathan Cohn: “I know what you’re saying, but this is what I’m hearing.” So I still think the White House needs to be a little less polite about smacking down the lies that are out there.

Take the videos up on their new Reality Check site. Melody Barnes tackles the euthanasia question and is fairly effective. While she makes clear that the White House does not support–nor do any health reform measures propose–“mandatory end-of-life-care counseling,” however, the distinctions she makes are all about “mandatory” versus “voluntary.” That’s fine when the subject is living wills and power of attorney, but the people who are scared of health reform have been whipped up about euthanasia.

And when Barnes addresses that fear, it’s to assure people that there won’t be “forced euthanasia.” “There’s nothing mandatory, nothing scary, nothing like those who describe the bill as forcing euthanasia,” she says.”It empowers you to make choices about your health care future.” A paranoid listener might hear that as, If you want to choose euthanasia–or your children want to pressure you to kick off when you become too much of a burden–that’s cool with us.

Wouldn’t it be easier to just say: “Health reform will not involve euthanasia. We do not support euthanasia. We are only talking about giving people the opportunity and counseling to create a living will if they want to do so”?

Obama gave just this kind of straightforward answer during another part of the town hall, in a statement he should repeat every day, if necessary: “I recognize there is an underlying fear here that people somehow won’t get the care they need. You will have not only the care you need, but also the care that right now is being denied to you–if we get health care reform.”