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BIOETHICS

Death Panels in Arizona

Arizona Legislature Reneges on Promises to Organ Donation Waiting List

Arizona State Capitol SOURCE: Wikipedia Commons Is this what a death panel looks like? The Arizona State capitol building.

A huge number of Americans are afraid that President Barack Obama’s success in enacting health reform legislation means that “death panels” will soon be deciding whether they or their loved ones live or die. A just released Kaiser Health Tracking Poll reveals that health reform has now hit a lower level of popularity with Americans than at any previous time during the Obama presidency. Only a quarter of the public say they expect their own families to be better off under the health reform law, the lowest level of support for health reform since Kaiser began polling on this issue in early 2009.

The survey also confirms that “health care voters” were central to the Republicans’ success in the recent congressional election. Republicans attracted a lot of support by demonizing health reform and promising to make repeal a top priority. One of the key demons that Mitch McConnell, Eric Cantor, Darrell Issa, John Boehner, and other GOP congressional leaders will surely be invoking to “kill the bill” next year are death panels.

All of this GOP concern about death panels is bogus. And supporters of health reform need to say so.

The only political effort to implement death panels since Obama got his health reform bill passed has been in the state of Arizona. There the Republican-controlled legislature with the approval of GOP Governor Jan “there are headless bodies turning up all over our desert” Brewer has told 98 people waiting for transplants that they must die.

Those 98, who are either poor or uninsurable by private insurance due to pre-existing conditions, need bone marrow, lung, heart, and other forms of transplants. They were told by the state’s Medicaid program—Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, or AHCCCS—that they qualified for coverage. But, this October 1, AHCCCS said it could not in fact pay for their transplants. Facing a billion-dollar-plus budget deficit, the Arizona legislature cut out all state funding for transplantation retroactively!

This means that people who were told they had a chance at life had the rug pulled out from under them without any warning. The Republican legislature not only acted as a death panel; it chose to balance the budget on the backs of the poorest and most desperate of Arizonians by welshing on a promise.

Just to be clear, the legislature and governor did not say there would be no more transplant funding going forward. They said they are telling those to whom coverage has already been promised to drop dead.

Those waiting for transplants who had put their faith in the promise of coverage did not get a chance to try and raise money to pay for a transplant. They could not try to move somewhere else to seek coverage. They had no chance to beg the legislature and the governor not to kill them. They simply woke up on October 1 and found that the most mean-spirited death panel imaginable had taken the most unjust course of action possible and pulled the funding rug out from under them.

A member of the Arizona House has suggested there might be a hearing on all this in January. But those needing transplants do not have the luxury of time. The waiting lists for hearts and lungs are short because those waiting die if they are not lucky enough to obtain an organ.

None of this death panel activity has evoked a word of protest from would be presidential candidates such as Sarah Palin, who first sounded the death panel false alarm about Obamacare; Newt Gingrich; or Mitt Romney. Nor has a single word of condemnation passed the lips of the incoming House GOP leadership.

Advocates of the long overdue effort to reform the ailing American health care system need to be ready to tell the American people that when it comes to their health, Republicans are more than willing to renege on their promises and send the weak and the frail to their graves. If the national GOP is serious about death panels there are 98 people in Arizona who would love to hear from them.

Arthur Caplan, PhD, is the Director of the Center for Bioethics and the Sidney D Caplan Professor of Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

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