THE BLOG

Those "Death Panels" Really Do Exist

At this point, if anyone still believes that progressive proposals for health insurance reform contain ominous "death panels" designed to kill their grandparents, I have a bridge to sell them in Arizona. Fear not, my conservative friends: The bridge connects a tea bag manufacturing plant with a militia training camp stuck in the 1990s, so you should feel right at home.

The "death panel" smear goes something like this: President Obama and his comrades in Congress are hell-bent on instituting mandatory end-of-life counseling sessions for American seniors as part of their socialist takeover of the health insurance industry. They will choose who gets to live and who will die. You know, just like Adolf Hitler and the Nazis did in Germany.

To date, the media have debunked the "kill granny" lie more than 40 times. The nonpartisan FactCheck.org says the claim of mandatory counseling on ending seniors' lives is "a misrepresentation." ABC's chief medical editor, Dr. Tim Johnson, said "the idea about death panels" is "not at all legitimate." PolitiFact.com has called "death panel" claims "a ridiculous falsehood." When the Associated Press conducted a fact check of the bogus charge, it reported, "No 'death panel in health care bill.' "

After former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin claimed that "Obama's 'death panel' " could decide the fate of her parents or her son who has Down syndrome, conservative radio host Larry Elder aptly called her comments "over the top."

Having been called on the carpet repeatedly for their "death panel" claims, other media conservatives like ABC's John Stossel and Fox News' Glenn Beck have taken a new approach. Many now claim that while proposals for health insurance reform may not actually force seniors into end-of-life counseling, they will result in "de facto death panels" via the government's rationing of care. Seriously.

The dubious right-wing spin surrounding health insurance reform is a bit like that bad cough that just won't go away -- persistent and annoying.

Despite the coverage allotted to debunking the right-wing "death panel" smear, the bigger picture remains intact. Americans face real death panels from their own health insurance providers. Rather than simply debunking the right's false talking point, the media should have gone one step further and pointed out that health insurance companies make life-and-death decisions every day when they decide what they are willing and not willing to cover.

Largely lost in the media discussion surrounding health insurance reform is the reality of the status quo -- you know, why we need reform in the first place.

Back in June, the evening news broadcasts on ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS ignored a congressional hearing on insurance companies' practice of investigating the medical histories of people who become ill and submit claims for expensive treatments, and then rejecting those claims on the grounds that those individuals had pre-existing conditions. The goal is quite simple. Find something -- anything -- and cancel or deny coverage for needed, potentially life-saving treatment. Why save a life when you can save a buck?

Robin Beaton, a former policyholder, testified in the hearing that she had been subject to this very practice. A retired registered nurse, Beaton's dermatologist had mistakenly indicated that she may have been suffering from a pre-cancerous skin condition. Soon after, she was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer. A few days before her scheduled double mastectomy, Blue Cross launched an investigation into her health records going back five years, convinced she was hiding a serious pre-existing condition.

Many Americans have stories just like Beaton's. Congress ultimately concluded that three major American insurance companies rescinded 19,776 policies for over $300 million in savings over five years, a number that Wendell Potter, a former senior executive at CIGNA health insurance company, said "significantly undercounts the total number of rescissions" by the companies.

It's not to say that the media ignore all stories like Beaton's; they don't. The modern media are in the drama business. Too often, media of all stripes characterize this important policy debate as a "he said, she said" over the government's role in health care, something that conservatives no doubt relish, and in the process, they fail to paint a picture of the way things currently exist.

This practice plays not only with the health of too many Americans, but with the health of modern journalism as well. We can hardly solve this crisis if we aren't being told the whole story.

Death panels are real. They do exist. Your own insurance provider could be in on it. And it's time the media said so.

Karl Frisch is a senior fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog and research and information center based in Washington, D.C. Frisch also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, or sign up to receive his columns by email.