Americans Love 'Death Panels.' Sorry, Sarah Palin!

Pretty much everybody thinks doctors should get paid to talk to you about your end-of-life options.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) famously equated an end-of-life planning proposal to a "death panel" in 2009.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) famously equated an end-of-life planning proposal to a "death panel" in 2009.

WASHINGTON -- Despite the best efforts of politicians like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), more than 8 in 10 Americans think it's just fine for Medicare and private health insurance companies to pay doctors for end-of-life counseling, a new poll shows.

According to survey results published Wednesday by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 81 percent of respondents believe Medicare should pay for these discussions, and 83 percent think health insurance companies should do so. 

Doctors' groups including the American Medical Association, seniors' groups like the AARP, and patient organizations such as the Alzheimer's Association have long endorsed end-of-life counseling sessions between patients and their physicians, and they support Medicare and insurance coverage of these consultations.

Discussing treatment options in advance with a physician can help patients declare their wishes while they're still healthy -- such as whether they want intensive medical care at the end of their lives -- and helps ensure their families don't have to make those decisions without their input. 

When Congress was writing the Affordable Care Act in 2009, Palin infamously equated an end-of-life counseling proposal to a government "death panel" that would decide how long elderly and sick people would be allowed to live, leading to its removal from the legislation. PolitiFact later deemed Palin's statement the "Lie of the Year," although this didn't stop her from reviving the charge in July, when the federal government brought back the plan in a proposed regulation. Enabling Medicare to pay doctors for their time is "bribing" them, Palin wrote on Facebook.

Under the pending federal rule, physicians who treat Medicare patients would be allowed to bill the program when they discuss end-of-life planning, which ranges from helping a person decide if they wish to receive intensive medical treatments near the end of their life to spelling out what limitations they prefer. Currently, a doctor only gets paid if she and a patient talk about end-of-life planning during the patient's initial physical upon enrolling in Medicare. 

However, just paying doctors probably won't be enough to get more people to plan for the ends of their lives, the Kaiser Family Foundation survey's other findings suggest. 

Even though 89 percent of respondents said doctors should have this conversation with patients -- and just 9 percent said they shouldn't -- only 17 percent of people reported having done so. And 4 in 10 of those who haven't yet had the discussion said they didn't want to. That's despite the survey also showing that 84 percent of people would be comfortable talking to their doctors about the topic.