We know that the vicious lie about end-of-life provisions — or “death panels” — in Congress’s proposed healthcare reform bill was spread by Sarah Palin and other Republicans. The White House, by the way, said it would drop the provision if it already hasn’t done so.
But what I did not know was the name of the Lutheran Hospital that originally proposed the provision — Gundersen Lutheran in La Crosse, Wisconsin — and that it once received widespread support from Republicans, including Newt Gingrich whose own father-in-law received end-of-life care there.
From the Washington Post:
President Obama’s health-care initiative was nearly consumed by the furor over that provision, and Republicans continue to argue that the legislation would ration care for the elderly. The debate has underscored how fraught the discussion is on end-of-life care in a country where an optimistic ethos places great faith in technology and often precludes frank contemplations of mortality. That tendency has a price tag: A quarter of Medicare costs — totaling $100 billion a year — are incurred in the final year of patients’ lives, and 40 percent of that in the last month.
But the controversy has had most resonance where it arguably took root, in this town of 52,000 where nearly everyone of a certain age has an advance-care directive.
La Crosse became a pioneer in addressing end-of-life questions in the mid-1980s, after Hammes, a native of the city who has a doctorate in philosophy from Notre Dame, arrived at Gundersen as the director of medical humanities, charged with educating resident physicians about ethics. He noticed a “troubling pattern,” he said, in which family members struggled to make medical decisions, such as whether to continue dialysis after a stroke.
“We’d turn to the family and say, ‘We need your input. If your mother or father could speak now, what would they tell you?’ And the family would say, ‘If we only knew,’ ” said Hammes, 59. “I could see the distress. They were going to have to live with themselves, with the worry about making a mistake. This was unacceptable.”
The hospital began urging families to plan while people are healthy. For those who want help writing a directive, a physician will discuss the powers and limits of medicine and explain to family members what it means if they agree to serve as the “health-care agent.” They will also help people define the conditions under which they would no longer want treatment. Hammes said people often define this as “when I’ve reached a point where I don’t know who I am or who I’m with, and don’t have any hope of recovery.”
The directives are power-of-attorney forms that protect physicians and family members against liability, and the hospital makes clear to its doctors that they are expected to follow them. Today, more than 90 percent of people in town have directives when they die, double the national average.
Here is the part about Newt Gingrich:
But Gundersen staff members say those conversations take a lot of time — a good hour, plus follow-up talks to alter directives as medical situations evolve. And Medicare does not reimburse doctors for the time spent on such discussions….
Gundersen officials were particularly upset when Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), whom they had considered an ally, said that the government should not “pull the plug on Grandma” and that the provision would be dropped. They were also dismayed when the provision was criticized by former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who had been open about how much he appreciated the end-of-life care his father-in-law received at Gundersen.
Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) admires Gunderson generally but said it erred in pushing for Medicare to cover consultations. “It’s right and proper for Gundersen to innovate in these directions, but it’s a wholly different thing for the federal government” to endorse end-of-life planning, he said.
Gundersen officials are still fighting to keep consultation payments in the bill, with support from Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who has become a leading advocate for such planning. But this week, word came that the White House is willing to drop the provision. The hospital officials are even less hopeful about more ambitious terms they sought to add — changing Medicare payments for end-of-life care so that they are based not on the procedures a patient receives in the final months but on whether care complied with the person’s wishes.
Do you have a will with end-of-life provisions? What do you think of including it in any healthcare proposal signed by the president?