Pelosi Sticks With Public Option

Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a gathering of interfaith leaders in San Francisco today (Justin Sullivan/Getty)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a gathering of interfaith leaders in San Francisco today (Justin Sullivan/Getty)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi held a press conference in San Francisco this morning at which she reiterated her commitment to a public option in the health reform bill and expressed hope, though with somewhat  lowered optimism, for coverage of end-of-life conversations. She did get in a dig at opponents of the latter: In response to a question about whether voluntary reimbursement for discussion of end-of-life care would stay in the bill, Pelosi said, “You know, the language is almost exactly the same as what the Republicans put into the prescription drug bill.”

The press conference, hosted by the San Francisco Interfaith Council, was an apparent reinforcement of the Democrats’ strategy of  broadening health reform support among members of religious communities. With leaders from the San Francisco Bay Area Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities arrayed behind her, the Speaker made repeated references to health care for all being a moral issue. Responding to the above question, she said, “People of faith, people in healthcare” and others know that “it makes life better if a person has expressed his or her own wishes. The key to this is that it is voluntary; it serves the purpose of saying what is your wish, rather than someone else having to make a decision you might not want. I don’t know what will happen (to the provision); I surely hope it will stay in.”

Pelosi was unequivocal, however, in her response to questions about the public option and to one reporter’s comment that “some Democrats and liberals are frustrated because it seems you are caving in to the far right.” “Is that you?” she repeated, pointing to herself. “The public option is the best way to go. If anybody can come up with a better alternative we’ll consider it. But the President is not backing off. The co-op might work in some states and that’s fine.  There is no way I can pass a bill on health reform without the public option.”

Pelosi was equally emphatic about her intention to retain the 400% of poverty measurement. Hesitantly using the term “seniors,” she said that many people between the ages of 50 and 65 have lost jobs, or may be making just $30,000 to $40,000 per year, and cannot afford needed medical care or prescription drugs. “I believe we have to have the 400% of poverty for them.”

Would the Democrats accept a scaled-down version of health reform? Pelosi repeated her litany of what is needed: reduced costs, improved quality, expanded coverage, affordable care for all; “What are you going to give up? At the end of the day, this is what we must have. And we must have reform of the insurance industry.”

In the small, carefully selected audience assembled at St. James Episcopal Church where her children attended preschool, Pelosi was on her own turf and among friends.  And she was characteristically upbeat. “Have we lost control of the debate? I disagree. I have 218 votes, and expect to have more. I am optimistic, and the President is committed to change.”

Counseling Improves Life's End. Surprise!

Knowledge, care and compassion really do bring peace. Why should this be a surprise? And why should a few strident opponents prevent those approaching life’s end from having this benefit?

A study appearing in today’s Journal of the American Medical Association points out the benefits of end-of-life counseling, although the widespread misinformation loose in the land may have doomed what should be a significant piece of health reform.

As a political uproar rages over end-of-life counseling, a new study finds offering such care to dying cancer patients improves their mood and quality of life.

The study of 322 patients in rural New Hampshire and Vermont also suggests the counseling didn’t discourage people from going to the hospital.

The Senate bill provision axed by Finance Committee chair Charles Grassley would have allowed coverage for conversations with physicians about things like hospice care, advance directives and treatment options.  But to opponents of reform, it was a handy attack mechanism. They enlisted a few standard bearers like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and media darling Rush Limbaugh to twist the issue into menacing “death panels,” and in no time at all Sen. Grassley had his excuse to excise.

Losers in this are all of us. Eventually, 100% of us will die. Aggressive treatment and expensive, futile procedures are common today to that experience; compassion and peace are harder to come by.

In the new study, trained nurses did the counseling with patients and family caregivers using a model based on national guidelines. All the patients in the study had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Half were assigned to receive usual care. The other half received usual care plus counseling about managing symptoms, communicating with health care providers and finding hospice care.

Patients who got the counseling scored higher on quality of life and mood measures than patients who did not.

Could someone please get this information to Sarah Palin?

Study: End-of-life advice aids terminally ill.

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.