Health Reform: The Mystery

Facebook friends of mine in the past few days have been turning up with a status line that reads, “No one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick. If you agree please post this as your status for the rest of the day.”

Well, I do agree. I haven’t posted it as my status yet, mainly because my True/Slant posts get posted as my status, and enough is probably enough. But I’ve been curious because friends who are not even Friends of friends have been posting it, some with additions (“I’m just sayin’…”) or (“E-mail your representatives!”)

So I just checked out Open Salon, and there’s OESheepdog’s blog reading “From my friend Leigh Bailey: “No one should die because… etc” followed by a long list of affirmative reactions. My personal favorite was John Blumenthal’s comment, “You’re right, of course, but I wouldn’t lose any sleep if someone took Glenn Beck’s insurance away. Pre-existing stupidity.”

But the question remains, Did OESheepdog’s friend Leigh Bailey start the whole movement? Kathleen Sebelius? Nancy Pelosi?

I’m just askin’.

Reforming US health care is not the end of the world – OEsheepdog – Open Salon.

What to do about Mom?

My friend Joan is distressed about her mother.   Joan – that’s an alias, we both value her privacy – lives quite near her parents, visits regularly, helps out with finances, health issues and everyday needs. They are in their late eighties. Other siblings live in other states. Until recently everything was fine; now the parents are in separate areas of their assisted living residence, Joan’s mother is in frequent despair and need. What’s a daughter to do?

This story is being repeated thousands of times every day across the country. Only this story has a peculiar twist: Joan’s parents did everything right. They lived frugally, planned ahead, raised their children to be successful and independent, moved early into a retirement community which offers care through illnesses minor and terminal. With Joan’s help they kept their affairs in order, including updated advance directives. (You don’t have your advance directives done? Horrors. Let me know and I will be at your door, cyberspacially speaking, to walk you through them immediately.) Joan’s parents were among early advocates for advance planning and end-of-life choice.

Joan comments: “Frankly, Mother is tired of being alive.  She’s not depressed, just ‘finished’, especially as she sees these slow declines in her quality of life as a steady and inevitable progression.  Her greatest desire would be to have a massive stroke and not survive.  But then her greatest nightmare would be to have a stroke and live . . . Even with the best advanced directives reflecting her choices, that’s a fine line to navigate.”

The moral of this story is that no amount of planning and preparation can guarantee the kinds of last months and years we might want. My own mother died peacefully at home, followed 20 years later by my father, same story. But that was in 1967 and 1987, in the small town of Ashland, Virginia where they had lived since 1939. The town looked after them; their out-of-state daughters merely visited and counted their blessings. Towns and neighborhoods like Ashland are in diminishing supply.

But all is not gloom and doom; this writer is constitutionally unable to write doom and gloom. Joan is at least clear about her parents’ wishes, and her parents have good care plus all allowable precautions: DNR orders, POLST forms, understandings with their medical professionals. Most of these are possible for today’s Boomers and their Beyonder parents; if you can’t find them I’ll happily tell you how. Joan’s parents are also in housing of their choice. And those choices are many: co-housing, retirement communities, assisted living facilities, many of them available to middle and low income Americans. Anyone over 50 who thinks he or she should postpone considering all of these issues, documents and choices until next year is delusional. Essays re housing choices have appeared in earlier Boomers and Beyond posts; others will follow. The secondary moral of this story is that without planning, late years can quickly turn into hell for elderly parents and adult children alike.

What we don’t have, of course, is health care such as Joan’s parents still enjoy for others who need it. The thing is, we can.

Healthcare: Sorting Fact from Fiction

House legislation on health reform is a win-some-lose-some proposition for those over 65. Especially, as outlined in The New York Times yesterday, when it comes to Medicare drug benefits.

Medicare beneficiaries would often have to pay higher premiums for prescription drug coverage, but many would see their total drug spending decline, so they would save money as a result of health legislation moving through the House, the Congressional Budget Office said in a recent report.

Premiums for drug coverage would rise an average of 5 percent in 2011, beyond the level expected under current law, and the increase would grow to 20 percent in 2019, the budget office said.

“However,” it said, “beneficiaries’ spending on prescription drugs apart from those premiums would fall, on average, as would their overall prescription drug spending (including both premiums and cost-sharing).”

The Congressional Budget Office report set off an immediate battle between Republicans and Democrats, each side eager to convince seniors — those vocal voters — that the other was representing the devil incarnate. Republicans swear the House bill will threaten Medicare beneficiaries in order to cover the uninsured, Democrats say the bill will help them by eliminating a gap in Medicare drug coverage.

On this particular segment of the impossibly complex bill, maybe seniors would do well to listen to their own purported champion:

Nancy LeaMond, an executive vice president of AARP, the lobby for older Americans, welcomed the report as evidence that “health care reform will lower drug spending.”

“Opponents of reform may use today’s projections to try to stall reform,” Ms. LeaMond said, “but we hope they will look at all the facts before jumping to a false conclusion.”

And there, some would suggest, is the problem. The facts have been virtually obscured by misstatements, misrepresentations and outright lies. Death panels? A lie that served its scary purpose. Rationing? It’s already here, folks; it’s done by insurance companies that deny coverage in sometimes arbitrary ways. Socialized medicine? Hello? Does anyone over 65 remember those screams before Medicare was signed into law in ’65? When half the population over 65 had no insurance coverage at all?

Set aside the fact that providing healthcare for all is simply the right thing to do. Millions of American seniors (whether you begin that definition at 65, 60 or — to their horror as it sometimes happens — 55) were motivated to support President Obama by not only their hearts but also their brains. If those brains can be called into play to sort fact from fear-mongering, we may yet get the health reform common decency requires of this otherwise civilized nation.

Health Bill Would Cut Drug Spending for Many on Medicare, Budget Office Says – NYTimes.com

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More on Health Care: Where the Costs Are

A few interesting factoids were dropped into the health reform debate by New York Times writer Amanda Cox Tuesday:

In 2006, health care expenses among half the United States population totaled less than $800 per individual, according to the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

For openers, that seems entirely reasonable. Would that we could actually care for the citizenry at $800 a pop. Keep reading.

But the expenditures were not uniformly distributed throughout the overall population. Spending was far higher among the elderly, the obese and people who identified themselves as unhealthy. Median spending in those groups totaled $2,300 per individual. Although these patients represent just one-third of the population, they accounted for almost 60 percent of health care spending.

I hate to stomp this nearly dead — oops, bad metaphor — horse even further into its grave, but a lot of us, given the chance to talk to our doctors about aggressive, invasive, often futile end-of-life treatments that are going to make our ends horrific might choose to go home and spend our remaining time with palliative care, at peace. A nifty way to cut that $2,300 back down to $800. But Senator Grassley and others think we should now allow those conversations.

The truth may be too obscured by the cleverly promoted lies, but the issue is about choice. Compassion. Comfort. Peace. Sanity. If anyone could get this truth across to seniors, that one critical segment of reform might still survive. And personally, I’d like to have the option of saving the rest of you taxpayers my $1,500.

via Making Sense of the Health Care Debate – Prescriptions Blog – NYTimes.com.

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.

Insuring the Uninsured: A No-Brainer

I’ll call her Joan. She is 61 years old, working in real estate and living comfortably in an upscale rental apartment thanks partly to rent control. She has a small 401k and a small, steady income from shared family ownership in a stable investment property. But the real estate business, you may have heard, hasn’t been wonderful lately. Joan lives frugally, gives of her time and resources to community nonprofits and is highly respected in business and social groups. She has no health insurance.

“I would if I could,” she told me some time ago. “But it’s either buy insurance or buy dinner. I’m fond of eating.” Twice in the past year Joan has had to have medical treatment; once for a nasty wound in a bike accident, once for an infection that required an overnight hospital stay. She went to the only place available, the understaffed emergency room of a crowded public hospital. Who picked up the tab? You and I. I am happy to do so, for Joan and everyone else who winds up in these predicaments. But come on, it’s not exactly cost-effective.

Expanding coverage to those currently uninsured is only one segment of this moving-target health reform; I hope it doesn’t get lost the way other key elements seem to be straying from the scene. People like Joan would be the first to purchase insurance through any reasonably-priced plan. Unfortunately, I don’t see many insurance companies eager to offer such a thing, and I don’t know where many of the currently uninsured will go if the public option comes off the table.  There were some 47 million uninsured at the latest count. Add to those the swiftly-rising numbers of independent contractors and freelancers of all sorts.

Getting non-emergency care out of the nation’s emergency rooms seems an enlightened thing to do… if we could just have a little more light and less heat in the discussion.

Fitness & Health Reform: Stay Flexible

Flexiblility is the new necessity. Political flexibility if one is to make the loop from truth to Sarah-Palin fiction, emotional flexibility if you’re following the market from day to day, mental flexibility just to stay sane with it all.

So maybe we’d better look at the physical. If you can just acquire and maintain a little physical flexibility you’re on the way to fitness, health and inner peace. At least, that’s what the yoga people tell me. Plus a lot of gym people, personal-trainer people and public park people. It is these last whom I tend to believe. I failed yoga (tried and just flat-out failed; I was too itchy for sunlight and speedier movement) and can’t afford a personal trainer. But parks! What a gift to the flexibility and fitness of the world and may we please not be closing them.

In our nearby urban park there is a par course. An array of exercise stations installed usually several hundred feet apart along an outdoor trail, the par course is the Everyman/Everywoman route to flexibility, especially for Boomers and Beyonders. It features a number of stretching posts (each station comes with illustrated instructions about what to do and how many times to do it) plus a variety of sturdily-equipped stations for things like chin-ups and sit-ups and other ups. I am addicted to the par course.

For the first five decades, fitness and flexibility aren’t all that hard to come by. Thereafter, one needs encouragement in this obesogenic (my new favorite word) society in which we live. Par courses are all about encouragement. You can’t manage to hand-walk more than halfway on the parallel bars? Last week you couldn’t get past one-third! Or you’re near despair at the chin-up station, and the hunky twenty-something at the adjacent bar applauds as you master a tiny new fraction of an inch.

By the time the final health reform bill is hammered out the issue of preventive medicine may be hopelessly lost in the shuffle. “Takes too long to produce results.” “Isn’t really worth the cost or the effort.” I don’t buy any of those arguments. Until we tackle the need for lifestyle changes like quitting smoking, losing weight and getting fit we’ll just keep pouring money down the drain of preventable illness. E-mail your senator. Write your representative.

Meanwhile, I recommend staying flexible.

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.