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EDITORIAL: Death panels by proxy

- The Washington Times - Friday, September 25, 2009

Yes, there are death panels. Its members won't even know whose deaths they are causing. But under the health care bill sponsored by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, death panels will indeed exist - oh so cleverly disguised as accountants.

The offending provision is on Pages 80-81 of the unamended Baucus bill, hidden amid a lot of similar legislative mumbo-jumbo about Medicare payments to doctors. The key sentence: "Beginning in 2015, payment would be reduced by five percent if an aggregation of the physician's resource use is at or above the 90th percentile of national utilization." Translated into plain English, it means that in any year in which a particular doctor's average per-patient Medicare costs are in the top 10 percent in the nation, the feds will cut the doctor's payments by 5 percent.

Forget results. This provision makes no account for the results of care, its quality or even its efficiency. It just says that if a doctor authorizes expensive care, no matter how successfully, the government will punish him by scrimping on what already is a low reimbursement rate for treating Medicare patients. The incentive, therefore, is for the doctor always to provide less care for his patients for fear of having his payments docked. And because no doctor will know who falls in the top 10 percent until year's end, or what total average costs will break the 10 percent threshold, the pressure will be intense to withhold care, and withhold care again, and then withhold it some more. Or at least to prescribe cheaper care, no matter how much less effective, in order to avoid the penalties.

The National Right to Life Committee concludes that this provision will cause a "death spiral" by "ensur[ing] that doctors are forced to ration care for their senior citizen patients." Every 10th doctor in the country will fall victim to it. Libertarian columnist Nat Hentoff calls the provision "insidious" and writes that "the nature of our final exit" will be very much at risk.

For all the trouble to the doctors and all the added risks to elderly patients, this provision will raise just $1 billion over six years for the federal Treasury. That doesn't account, though, for the added costs to the government - and thus to taxpayers - of tracking all this data per doctor and per patient, and then trying to collect the penalties from doctors after they already have been paid for their services.

This is far from the only part of Baucus-Pelosi-Obamacare that would almost certainly lead to rationing of care, especially for the elderly. The proposed "health care exchange," along with Obamacare's independent review panels and a national health board, will be empowered to make aggregate decisions - based on statistics, not on an individual patient's needs - about what sorts of care will be allowed and what won't. As it is in Great Britain, where thousands of cancer patients each year die prematurely due to lack of treatment, the inevitable result of government care could be the same for many Americans as if an actual panel decided case-by-case to euthanize them. The Baucus provision would only exacerbate this bureaucratic preference for death by proxy.