Thankfully, the nation has moved on from the reckless “death panel” rhetoric that could have derailed a compassionate new policy that would help millions of patients do end-of-life planning before a medical crisis strikes.
On Oct. 30, the federal agency overseeing Medicare finalized a policy that will pay medical providers to advise patients on advance-care planning. The change starts in January and covers the 49 million Americans enrolled in Medicare, the popular health insurance program for those age 65 and up. Both current Medicare beneficiaries and those entering the program will be eligible.
Regrettably, this sensible initiative is years in the making. In 2009, former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin made death panels a national buzzword, wielding it so effectively that officials eventually backed off including payments in the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Palin’s wrongheaded crusade continued in the years since, with her Facebook page warning recently that physicians would be “coerced to provide answers to the death panel of the fed.”
Despite Palin’s warning, the new policy is voluntary. Neither patients nor physicians are forced to plan ahead for medical care in their final days. But patients should take advantage of the new opportunity to do so. By paying physicians for this service, Medicare officials have given providers stronger incentive to thoughtfully walk through the options with patients rather than rushing on to their next appointment.
It’s hard to imagine a better time or place than an exam room to have a meaningful conversation about end-of-life medical care. Patients should be able to make their preferences known before they’re too ill to do so. Having a medical provider’s expertise also ensures that decisions are based on complete and accurate information.
The new payment policy is a strong step toward improving end-of-life care, though there is still work to be done. In particular, training for medical providers needs strengthening. With the “death panel” nonsense mostly silenced, further improvements should come more easily.