The pulitzer prize-winning news service PolitiFact.com, a fact-checking operation of the St. Petersburg Times, has awarded Sarah Palin its first ever “Lie of the Year” award, for her patently false claim that healthcare reform legislation would create “death panels”. Properly told, the lie of the year is the “death panels” claim itself, for which Palin is only partly responsible. She appears to have been responsible for the most high profile and most fundamentally false telling of the lie, though other Republican opponents of healthcare reform had falsely asserted that reimbursement for doctors who provide end of life counseling would be devoted to a campaign of euthanasia designed to eliminate the elderly and infirm.
In fact, the “death panels” claim is closely linked to the Republican assertion that Democrats want to “ration care” in the health treatment system, deliberately denying treatment on the basis of cost projections and arbitrary valuations of the worth of an individual life. But in fact, it is the private healthcare insurance sector that was shown this year to be doing just that, calculating a “medical loss ratio” that tracks how much insurers “lose” by providing the coverage for which they are paid and using a number of dishonest practices designed to cheat customers of the care they’ve paid for in advance by targeting them for “pre-existing conditions” and other unfair standards.
Six of the state’s largest insurers rejected 45.7 million claims for medical care, or 22% of all claims, from 2002 to June 30, 2009, according to the California Nurses Assn.’s analysis of data submitted to regulators by the companies.
The rejection rates ranged from a high of 39.6% for PacifiCare to 6.5% for Aetna for the first half of 2009. Cigna denied 33%, and Health Net 30%.
The situation was found to be so grave, in fact, that the state attorney general opened an investigation into whether the widespread denial of coverage might be part of a criminal conspiracy or a kind of insurance fraud committed by the insurers themselves.
So Palin’s lie was a shameless distortion on a number of levels: for one, there are no death panels, nor is there anything remotely like them in any pending legislation; no one in the United States Congress has ever proposed such a thing. But then also, this lie is rooted in the false claim that healthcare reform is a plot to ration care. And on top of that, there’s the unsavory fact that private insurers not only already do ration care, but their entire business model has come to rely on their ability to do that.
Wendell Potter, a now well-known whistleblower who left CIGNA due to his disapproval of their refusal of care practices, has said of major private insurers:
They have begun shifting their business model away from managed care, which, frankly, I used to think was a great model, a great concept, for the delivery of healthcare. But they’ve moved—they’re moving away from that to what they refer to as consumer-driven or consumer-directed care, and it really is just a euphemism for shifting the financial burden from insurers and employers onto the shoulders of working men and women. I saw that happening. But I also saw how—you know, the things that they do to maximize their profit, which really boils down to dumping the sick.
But Palin’s “death panels” lie was worthy of being named the year’s most infamous because it was both dangerous in its potential for stirring up violent anger, and because it spread across the Republican party and among the public. PolitiFact notes that:
Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Finance Committee, told people at a town hall meeting on Aug. 12 that people “have every right to fear. You shouldn’t have counseling at the end of life; you ought to have counseling 20 years before you’re going to die. You ought to plan these things out. And I don’t have any problem with things like living wills, but they ought to be done within the family. We should not have a government program that determines you’re going to pull the plug on Grandma.”
To add yet another layer of shameless distortion to the lie, the “end of life counseling” provision that Palin sought to turn into a sinister government “death panel” was proposed by a Republican, not by a member of the Democratic party. The lie was reported by two independent polls, according to PolitiFact, to have been believed by as much as 30% of the American public. It was a particularly sinister distortion of the facts, in a year full of historic legislative reform initiatives, and in a climate where cynics can be sure most of the public, perhaps even many in Congress, were not going to read the legislation.
To persuade Americans there might be a plot to exterminate the elderly is not just a kind of rhetorical terror, it is also an assault on the integrity of the democratic process. Palin’s intent was clearly and unabashedly to slander the president of the United States and the leadership of the United States Congress, in the hopes of killing legislation designed to protect consumers and prevent unethical business practices that are actually contributing to tens of thousands of deaths per year. If enough people would believe her lie, Palin might succeed in derailing the reform effort, and nothing would be done to help those under threat from a broken system.
Palin claimed in an interview just last month that the claim was meant to be both a serious critique and a rhetorical exaggeration. Though nothing in the legislation comes even close to establishing any panel that would ration care, let alone promote euthanasia, she claimed to be able to read that into the text. She also said “I would characterize them like that again, in a heartbeat.” (Note the use of the word “them” to refer to entirely fictional “panels” that she thought up.)
In fact, Palin seems totally unfazed by one of the most respected fact-checking organizations in the country detailing the rampant falsehood of her lying and, true to form, did in fact reiterate her death panel claim on Twitter this week. The clear result is that debate about our media culture is now shifting from how informative, how cogent and reliable is it to does it matter that political figures of national renown openly declare their intention to use lies to whip up a feverish support among individuals they hope will remain uninformed.