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Death Panels, Palliative Care, and the Dangers of Modern McCarthyism

McCarthy and CohnIt’s time to fight back. The “death panel” nonsense is not a harmless and amusing political canard – it is modern McCarthyism: the shameless, heinous use of lies and distortions to scare and confuse people. The tide will only turn if all of us begin speaking up for the truth.

Read NY Times piece on palliative care, and you get a sense of the power and beauty of the modern movement to provide patients and families with information and support at the end of life. The piece chronicles the decline and ultimate death of Deborah Migliore, a former topless dancer from the Bronx, from metastatic carcinoid, and the efforts of palliative care specialist Sean O’Mahony to support the patient and her husband through her painful final weeks. The article describes palliative care providers this way:

They are tour guides on the road to death, the equivalent of the ferryman in the Greek myth who accompanied people across the river Styx to the underworld. They argue that a frank acknowledgement of the inevitability of death allows patients to concentrate on improving the quality of their lives, rather than lengthening them, to put their affairs in order and to say goodbye before it is too late.

This has been precisely my experience working with our extraordinary palliative care team at UCSF. So I was pleased to see some support for palliative care embedded into the early versions of health reform legislation.

Then came Sarah Palin and the other hypocritical asses who have managed to take a serious, even profound, issue and turn it into a mockery. Read Joe Klein’s article in this week’s Time magazine to get your blood boiling. Klein begins with a poignant discussion of the end-of-life issues he’s grapping with for his elderly parents, but then – after the obligatory “there are still a few reasonable Republicans out there… somewhere” riff – gets to the point:

… But they have been overwhelmed by nihilists and hypocrites more interested in destroying the opposition and gaining power than in the public weal. The philosophically supple party that existed as recently as George H.W. Bush’s presidency has been obliterated. The party’s putative intellectuals — people like the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol — are prosaic tacticians who make precious few substantive arguments but oppose health-care reform mostly because passage would help Barack Obama’s political prospects. In 1993, when the Clintons tried health-care reform, the Republican John Chafee offered a creative (in fact, superior) alternative — which Kristol quashed with his famous “Don’t Help Clinton” fax to the troops. There is no Republican health-care alternative in 2009. The same people who rail against a government takeover of health care tried to enforce a government takeover of Terri Schiavo’s end-of-life decisions. And when Palin floated the “death panel” canard, the number of prominent Republicans who rose up to call her out could be counted on one hand.Continue reading…

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