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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

About Those “Death Panels”


It seems inevitable that the government will grab the remains of “private” medical care, so I will look at our medical futures. One development will be the implementation of the infamous “death panels” that socialists swear are a figment of the imaginations of paranoid persons like Sarah Palin.

For example, I received emails from the religious left-wing organization “Sojourners,” which declared that Palin was lying when she made the comment last August 7 in her Facebook page that declared:

The Democrats promise that a government health care system will reduce the cost of health care, but as the economist Thomas Sowell has pointed out, government health care will not reduce the cost; it will simply refuse to pay the cost. And who will suffer the most when they ration care? The sick, the elderly, and the disabled, of course. The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.

In the ensuing firestorm, the New York Times called it a “false rumor,” and the “fact checkers” at the Politifact website named her statement the “Lie of the Year.” Kate Snow of ABC News said the claim was “shocking” and “inflammatory.”

Neither the House nor the Senate bills use the phrase “death panels,” but that is not surprising. None of the other countries that have socialist care actually have committees with that name. However, the “death panel” mentality certainly exists, and it exists precisely because socialist medical care exists not for care of individuals, but rather to enforce larger egalitarian political goals.

Ironically, the New York Times provides the “smoking gun” to the egalitarian mentality that leads to the “death panels” route. The paper last year carried a story about a British woman, Debbie Hirst, who suffered from cancer, but could not receive the medications she needed because the National Health Service declared them too costly.

Hirst decided to raise the money herself by selling her house, but the government said that if she did that, then it would not pay for any of her care:

Officials said that allowing Mrs. Hirst and others like her to pay for extra drugs to supplement government care would violate the philosophy of the health service by giving richer patients an unfair advantage over poorer ones.

Patients “cannot, in one episode of treatment, be treated on the N.H.S. and then allowed, as part of the same episode and the same treatment, to pay money for more drugs,” the health secretary, Alan Johnson, told Parliament.

“That way lies the end of the founding principles of the N.H.S.,” Mr. Johnson said.

In other words, unless one can justify one’s treatment under larger socialist purposes, then the government will be happy to let someone die, for enforced egalitarianism trumps actual care. This is not something new. Writing in the November 1993 Freeman, Dr. Jane Orient noted that government medical “cost containment” is another term for denying care:

The global budgeters “contain costs”—ration health care by denying those things that you do need insurance to pay for: heart surgery, radiation treatments for cancer, hip replacements, things like that. Out of “compassion,” reformers may open another exit: the one that leads to the cemetery. (Emphasis mine) Do you think it’s accidental that euthanasia and “universal access” are on the agenda at the same time?

Thomas Sowell is correct. Entrepreneurs lower real costs by finding ways to create more goods and using fewer resources. Governments “lower” costs via raw force or denying medical care, and if a person offers to pay for the care, well, that defeats the real purpose of socialism. Yet, we are told that private entrepreneurship in medical care is evil and medical socialism is good. People who accept such things as being true also will endorse the presence of “death panels,” even while denying that the panels exist.


  • Dr. William Anderson is Professor of Economics at Frostburg State University. He holds a Ph.D in Economics from Auburn University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.