Tracking Down a Rumor

Rumors come, and don’t seem to go. Jim Rutenberg and Jackie Calmes of the New York Times have weighed in again today with a few facts… just in case anyone is interested in facts:

The stubborn yet false rumor that President Obama’s health care proposals would create government-sponsored “death panels” to decide which patients were worthy of living seemed to arise from nowhere in recent weeks.

Advanced even this week by Republican stalwarts including the party’s last vice-presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, and Charles E. Grassley, the veteran Iowa senator, the nature of the assertion nonetheless seemed reminiscent of the modern-day viral Internet campaigns that dogged Mr. Obama last year, falsely calling him a Muslim and questioning his nationality.

Rutenberg and Calmes point out that the doggedly persistent rumor “was not born of anonymous e-mailers, partisan bloggers or stealthy cyberconspiracy theorists.

Rather, it has a far more mainstream provenance, openly emanating months ago from many of the same pundits and conservative media outlets that were central in defeating President Bill Clinton’s health care proposals 16 years ago, including the editorial board of The Washington Times, the American Spectator magazine and Betsy McCaughey, whose 1994 health care critique made her a star of the conservative movement (and ultimately, New York’s lieutenant governor).

This is the core of what all reasonable people know:

There is nothing in any of the legislative proposals that would call for the creation of death panels or any other governmental body that would cut off care for the critically ill as a cost-cutting measure.

But as T/S Contributor Andy Geiger points out, the real issue in health reform is that people are suffering because they don’t have health coverage. Opponents to any reform at all have found a handy way to create this smokescreen by keeping everyone riled up with an utterly false rumor.

I’ve spent much of my adult life working for better end-of-life care, including being forever on a soapbox urging everyone, not just seniors, to consider their end-of-life options, have conversations, create advance directives and then get on with living. I strongly, fully support the good provision in the health care bills that may indeed now get cut.

But we need not to lose this forest for a tree. Rational people have got to continue fighting for a decent system, a decent bill.

False ‘Death Panel’ Rumor Has Some Familiar Roots – NYTimes.com.

End-of-Life Care is Losing to Lies

Here is some of the current worst news on health reform:

The Senate Finance Committee’s health care plan will not include provisions dealing with end-of-life care, now one of the more controversial topics in the health care debate, the committee’s top Republican said on Wednesday.

Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa said in a statement that the committee “dropped end-of-life provisions from consideration entirely because of the way they could be misinterpreted and implemented incorrectly.”

If anyone knows misinterpretation, it’s Senator Grassley. He’s the originator of such enlightened parting phrases as the one he tossed out at an Iowa meeting Wednesday, about not wanting a health plan “that will pull the plug on grandma.” There is, of course, no grain of truth in that phrase, but its repetition does exactly what Sen. Grassley and his ilk wish: whip the opposition to any real reform into an emotional, unthinking frenzy. And they are winning the war against reason one battle at a time.

A Senate Finance Committee aide confirmed that the panel was not discussing end-of-life measures, adding that they were “never a major focus” of the committee’s negotiations.

House committees have passed legislation that would provide Medicare coverage for optional counseling sessions on end-of-life services.

But as people like Senator Grassley, and former N.Y. Lt. Governor Betsy McCaughey who sought fame and perhaps fortune by starting this whole flap, keep the country inflamed with misinformation the chances of decent legislation rising from these ashes grow dim.

The hopeless optimists of the land continue to believe that calls and letters and e-mails of sanity will convince our legislators that the country will rally around a decent bill… but Mr. Grassley and Ms. McCaughey are making optimism difficult.

via Senate Bill Will Not Address End-of-Life Care – Prescriptions Blog – NYTimes.com.

Health Care that Works: Integrated Medicine

President Obama speaks at a Portsmouth, NH event on August 11 (Darren McCollester/Getty)
President Obama speaks at a Portsmouth, NH event on August 11 (Darren McCollester/Getty)

Last night’s NewsHour included a segment that gives me hope: a clip of President Obama citing integrated medical systems that are actually working, followed by an excellent in-depth piece on the Billings MT clinic that proves the point. Billings is only one of such examples.

How do they work? By getting everybody under one roof and coordinating patient care. By letting different specialties work together, rather than sending a patient from one to another to another. By compensating doctors with salaries. This last is a sticking point: if you own a piece of the MRI business, for example, you might just be inclined to order more MRIs. Or you’re tied to the work-harder-get-richer principle. But more and more doctors seem interested in having a life, in not being on call 24 hours a day, in earning good money (integrated system compensations compare well with private practices) while focusing on patient care — without over-prescribing and over-ordering to guard against getting sued.

Why does this make such good sense? Because most patients (not all) sing its praises. Because integrated care saves money by keeping people healthier, reducing unnecessary procedures, keeping people out of hospitals… the list goes on.

My oncologist retired a year after a 2006 breast cancer episode. I went to meet my new choice on the 8th floor of Kaiser Medical Center in March, 2008. She looked at lab tests (2nd floor), spotted anemia, said I shouldn’t be anemic, ordered colonoscopy/endoscopy. G.I. doc (2nd floor) found celiac disease in June, connected me to nutritionist (across the street) and to endocrinologist (6th floor) who helped me design diet plus vitamins etc so I’m healthy again. Physical therapist (4th floor) discussed fitness plans. All of these specialists, my surgeon (2nd floor) and my primary care doc (4th floor) are friends. All respond to frequent e-mails within 24 hours, saving multiple calls and appointments. All post test results, etc on my personal web page. Thus, over a 3-year period: one overnight hospitalization for mastectomy, one out-patient procedure, a reasonable number of appointments, healthy patient.

Not everybody loves Kaiser, or the other clinics being studied. But it’s a model that works.

Justice Souter's Retirement Housing

It turns out not even Supreme Court justices are exempt from the dilemmas of senior housing. Too many steps? Too many books? What’s a retiree to do?

When he retired from the Supreme Court in June, it was expected that Justice David H. Souter would return to his beloved family farmhouse in Weare, N.H., a rustic abode with peeling brown paint, rotting beams and plenty of the solitude he desired. While the new home is only eight miles from his rustic farmhouse, the two could be worlds apart.

But Justice Souter, an individualist on and off the bench, decided to move.

On July 30, he bought a 3,448-square-foot Cape Cod-style home in neighboring Hopkinton listed at $549,000. The single-floor home, for which he paid a reported $510,000, sits on 2.36 well-manicured acres.

This is not going to work for the downsizers who don’t have access to a cheap, reliable lawn service. But it’s easy to pinpoint a few of Justice Souter’s upgrades in the downsize:

The farmhouse has no phone lines; the Hopkinton house has “multiple,” according to the real estate listing. The farmhouse’s lawn was spotted with brown; the Hopkinton house has a verdant lawn and neatly trimmed hedges. And for Justice Souter, 69, who is known to be a fitness buff, there is a home gym as well as a spa bath.

Or, he can just mow his own lawn. The core issue, however, is closer to those reported by hundreds who are opting for retirement apartments, urban condos and other housing choices mentioned in earlier columns.

Justice Souter told a Weare neighbor, Jimmy Gilman, that the two-story farmhouse was not structurally sound enough to support the thousands of books he owns, according to The Concord Monitor, and that he wished to live on one level.

Perhaps Justice Sotomayor will want to keep a lid on her library shelves.

Off the Bench, Souter Leaves Farmhouse Behind – NYTimes.com.

Can We Hear It for Truth-Telling?

Although the They’re going to kill the grannies! campaign continues, some heavyweight voices of sanity are being heard above the roar. Sojourners founder/author/activist Jim Wallis weighed in Friday with a few choice words of wisdom:

I have said that one important moral principle for the health care debate is truth-telling. For decades, the physical health and well-being of our country has been a proxy battle for partisan politics. Industry interests and partisan fighting are once again threatening the current opportunity for a public dialogue about what is best for our health-care system. What we need is an honest and fair debate with good information, not sabotage of reform with half-truths and misinformation.

Yet in recent weeks, conservative radio ads have claimed that health-care reform will kill the elderly (it won’t), that it will include federal funding for abortion (it doesn’t), and that it is a socialist takeover of the health-care system (it isn’t). The organizations promoting these claims, including some Religious Right groups, are either badly misinformed, or they are deliberately distorting reality.

I think it’s all of the above. But what’s particularly frightening is the number of people who, hearing these messages over and over, are passing them along as presumed truth. My Inbox is having some dark days thanks to conservative friends wanting to know if I’m aware of one untruth or another. Because I have some conservative friends I like and respect, I try to listen, understand their points of view and keep lines of communication open — but it’s getting hard. Wallis cites one reason why:

A particularly egregious example is an ad that the Family Research Council has run in selected states. It depicts an elderly man and his wife sitting at their kitchen table. He turns to his wife and says, “They won’t pay for my surgery. What are we going to do?” He continues, “and to think that Planned Parenthood is included in the government-run health care plan and spending tax dollars on abortion. They won’t pay for my surgery, but we’re forced to pay for abortion.”

These kinds of ads should be stopped. They do not contribute to the debate that is needed to ensure that all Americans have access to quality, affordable health care. It is rather exactly the kind of misinformation campaign that could destroy needed reform.

It’s going to be a long, hard August.

Jim Wallis: Truth-telling and Responsibility in Health Care.

Ethical dilemmas for one and all

In case you don’t have enough medical/political/ethical dilemmas on your plate, William Saletan tossed out a hefty bunch, in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, to chew on:

The most powerful revolutions of our age aren’t happening in Washington, the Muslim world or the global economy. They’re happening in science and technology. At a pace our ancestors couldn’t have imagined, we’re decoding, replicating and transforming the human body. These revolutions are changing how we live, what we think and who we are.

Bodies used to be unalterably separate. Yours was yours; mine was mine. That isn’t true anymore. Organ transplantation has made human parts interchangeable. Thanks to aging and obesity, global demand for kidneys and liver tissue is increasing. Meanwhile, anti-rejection drugs and other innovations have turned more and more of us into potential donors. But supply isn’t keeping up with demand, so doctors, patients and governments are becoming more aggressive. Death is being declared more quickly so organs can be harvested. Rich people are buying kidneys from poor people. Governments are trying financial inducements to encourage donation. The latest proposals, outlined in Sally Satel’s “When Altruism Isn’t Enough: The Case for Compensating Kidney Donors” (2008), include tax credits, tuition vouchers and cash. As pressure grows from the left through socialized medicine, and from the right through free markets, organs will increasingly be treated either as a commodity or as a community resource.

The one that catches my eye (see Looking at One’s Own End-of-Life Choices, 7/30; Palliative Care: Rush Limbaugh vs the Grannies, 7/24, and a slew of other recent posts) is confronted in a reasonable, head-on fashion.

Beyond transplantation and mechanization looms the broader question of longevity. Over the last half-century, the age a 65-year-old American could expect to reach has increased by one year per decade. In 1960, it was 79. Today, it’s 84. Life expectancy at birth has passed 78 in the United States and 83 in Japan. We have no idea where these trends will end. It’s been just six years since we decoded the first human genome and less than two years since we learned how to make adult cells embryonic.

The cost of caring for old people will be enormous, but that’s just the beginning. We’re fixing and replacing worn-out body parts for older and older patients. How much life do we owe them?

The long-run solution, outlined by Robert N. Butler in “The Longevity Revolution” (2008), is to treat longer life as a resource, not just a goal. That means exploiting its benefits, like wisdom and equanimity, while focusing medicine and lifestyle changes on extending health and productivity rather than dragging out the last bedridden months.

It is well past time for us to stop looking at prolongation of life, regardless of quality, as the be-all-and-end-all of health care. Religious groups, right-wing factions and assorted others are screaming that even coverage of honest conversation with one’s physician about prognosis, treatment and options is going to shove people into early graves. But conversations of such sort, and civil discourse in general, are desperately needed.

OK, according to the above statistics this writer still has eight years before my projected demise; but I am definitely one of the grannies Mr. Limbaugh and his ilk profess to be protecting. Thanks very much; rather than drawn-out bed-ridden months I will take wisdom and equanimity any day, if our health care reformists will please focus on addressing health and productivity for all ages. Problem is, the voices of “protection” are drowning out the voices of reason. Which makes this not just a dilemma but a potential national tragedy.

Crossroads – You – The Updated Owner’s Manual – NYTimes.com.

Beavers in Manhattan, Mink in California

Mink
Image via Wikipedia

Maybe beavers have little in common with Boomers, or Beyonders, but after reading T/S Contributor Caitlin Kelley’s Canada/NY beaver piece just now I felt compelled to respond with today’s news of California urban mink. Their newly discovered presence was documented by the San Francisco Chronicle’s Carolyn Jones:

First, there were beavers. Then otters and muskrats.

And now – as if the Martinez Public Works Department needed more cute, furry mammals paddling around Alhambra Creek – there are mink.

Ten months after the city spent $500,000 to shore up the eroding creek bank, a condition many blamed on the beavers and their obsessive handiwork, a mother mink and four babies were spotted this week cavorting near the beaver’s primary dam, just north of the Escobar Street bridge in downtown Martinez.

The silky, razor-toothed critters have apparently taken up residence in the pond created by the beavers’ dam, along with a variety of other aquatic wildlife.

But then again, maybe there IS some relevance. Recent posts re health and housing, which seem to be atop the news for over-50 generations if not everyone else too these days, have had friends asking if there isn’t something ELSE to write about? Well, yes. Exercise and fitness. The absolute best of which is snagging a half hour or two and heading out to circle the Central Park reservoir or roam around Golden Gate Park, or wherever your city walking place of choice happens to be. Mine is 16th Street, San Francisco, start at the Bay, end at Market (or continue whatever direction from there) and you’ll encounter every ethnic/social/business/industry/arts category you could want and the views aren’t bad at the tops of the hills. But back to the mink:

Mink are native to the area but are highly unusual. They’re more often spotted in the delta or the Sierra Nevada, but their population could be rising because of the decreasing popularity of mink coats, Bell said.

Maureen Flannery, collections manager for the ornithology and mammalogy department at the California Academy of Sciences, also confirmed that the animals in question are Neovison vison, a.k.a. American mink.

The babies probably were born in April or May and will stay with their mother until fall, when they will head out to claim their own territories, she said.

I’ve also had questions about food-and-nutrition writing, this being another biggie for over-50s (under-50s are either already sold on healthy lifestyles or eating pizza and sushi and fries and just not giving a damn about calories and cholesterol.) And fine dining also enters this late-breaking news:

Dan Murphy, owner of Bertola’s restaurant adjacent to the beavers’ dam, was also taking a wait-and-see attitude. Liability concerns over the restaurant’s weakening foundation were one reason the city decided to shore up the creek bank last fall.

“I don’t really care,” Murphy said. “Although I guess the creek’s becoming more and more of a habitat, which is pretty cool.”

Martinez vice mayor Mike Menesini, proclaiming his “a very welcoming city” is waiting to see how this newly-mixed community gets along.

So far, the mink, beavers, muskrats, otters and turtles have adopted an attitude of mutual indifference. The crayfish aren’t so lucky – they’re often dinner for their carnivorous creek-mates.

The Beaver Fest in downtown Martinez today features bagpipes, bluegrass and jazz bands. Dancing in the streets is good exercise too.

Looking at one's own end-of-life issues

A tough story eloquently told by California physician Martin Welsh adds poignancy to the fight for legalized physician aid in dying, and emphasis to the need for patient choice as a consideration in health reform. Dr. Welsh speaks in clear language of his current dilemma:

I am a 55-year-old retired family doctor with a large, loving family and innumerable friends and former patients whom I see often. I am an extraordinarily lucky man.

For the last five years, I have also been a patient. I have ALS (or Lou Gehrig’s disease), a cruel neurological illness in which a normally functioning intellect becomes trapped in an increasingly weak and eventually paralyzed body. Soon, I will die from it.

Through my career, I tried to honor my patients’ end-of-life wishes. But after a quarter-century as a firsthand witness to death, I’ve developed my own perspective.

It’s not that I’m a quitter. I have struggled against adversity of one sort or another all my life, and those challenges have helped prepare me for what I face now. I still delight in accomplishing difficult things, and I always wear a bright red ALS wristband that says “Never Give Up.”

That said, there will come a limit. I have made it very clear to my wife, my family and my doctors that I want no therapy that will prolong my suffering and lengthen the burden on others. I do not want a feeding tube nor a tracheotomy when the time comes that I can no longer eat, drink or breathe for myself.

Dr. Welsh suggests, for himself and others, making a list of 100 things that make life worth living, ordinary things one does every day.

Some are routine, some are “chores,” some are pleasurable. Get out of bed and walk to the bathroom. Kiss your wife. Answer the phone.

Drive your car to work. Go play golf with your friends. Brush your teeth. Write a letter, lick and seal the envelope closed and put a stamp on it. Hug your child.

Of course we do many more than 100 things each day, but for now, just imagine 100 that are essential to the life you live. Now if you take away one, you can still do 99. Is life worth living without being able to smell the rose in the garden? Of course it is! How about losing two or seven, or 23 — is life still worth living? Of course.

But suppose you get to where you’ve lost, say, 90 things, and now with each thing taken away, a bad thing is added…

At some point, no matter who you are or how strong, you can lose enough things that matter — and acquire enough negatives — that the burdens will outweigh the joys of being alive…

Recognizing he’ll reach that point one day, Dr. Welsh looks his destiny squarely in the eye:

…as I face my diminishing list of the 100 things that make life worth living, the choice of quality over quantity has to be mine to make.