Misinformation, Mayhem mar Debate on Healthcare

From the USA Today


There’s an old proverb that says a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still getting its boots on. That’s surely true when the lie instills deep personal fears, and lies appear to be in full sprint as the nation’s health care debate goes local.

A06-EDIT-10 Some August town hall meetings around the country have degenerated into furious shouting matches, driven by outrageous misinformation borne of many sources.

The Internet spreads anonymous chain e-mails to a public that is both vulnerable and gullible. Groups with a financial or ideological interest give the rumors a boost. Talk radio provides an echo chamber for the demonizers. Most outrageously, political leaders who know better and could oppose legislation in a more credible way, engage in their own hyperbole or simply remain silent. One Republican senator, South Carolina’s Jim DeMint, simply bypassed the substance of the discussion, saying it was a chance to “break” a popular Democratic president. He has plenty of company that isn’t quite as blunt.

 As we’ve said before in this space, there are valid reasons to oppose some of the ideas percolating in Congress — chiefly the lack of a credible financing mechanism — but the distortions have become so numerous that they’ve often won Politifact.org’s “pants on fire” award (as in “liar, liar, pants on fire”).

So in the interest of correcting some of the misinformation, here are a few truths that need to get moving:

— Euthanasia. Critics have mastered the art of plucking a single piece of bill language and wildly distorting it. In this case it’s a section of a House bill inserted by members of both parties to allow Medicare to pay doctors for optional end-of-life counseling, something that’s already covered in a new patient’s first Medicare visit. Anyone who has struggled with the decisions patients and family members must make as death approaches knows the value of having thought this through ahead of time and having made their wishes clear. Millions already do that.

But critics have twisted this into a sinister, cost-saving plot by the government to force seniors to end their lives early. First aired on the radio show of former Tennessee GOP senator Fred Thompson, the notion was picked up by House Republican Leader John Boehner, who said the provision was a precursor to “government-encouraged euthanasia.” Former Alaska GOP governor Sarah Palin has now weighed in with a Facebook posting that claims that Obama would create a government-run “death panel.”

Neutral arbiters have rightly demolished this. FactCheck.org labels the claim “nonsense” and says calling this forced euthanasia is like saying “a bill making retirement planning easier would force Americans to quit their jobs.” Terrifying seniors over this provision is shameless.

— Socialism. It’s hard not to smile when critics warn darkly that health care reform means “socialism” or a “government takeover” of health care, since these same critics are usually staunch supporters of government-run Medicare, one of the closest things to socialism in the USA. Despite charges that President Obama and the Democrats really want the sort of single-payer, government-run systems in Canada or Britain, nothing in the legislation even comes close.

In fact, to the disgust of single-payer advocates, Obama and Democrats have all but frozen them out of the debate in an effort to build reform on top of the current employer-based system. What they have proposed that gives the fear life is a “public option,” which would indeed be a government-run health care plan very much like Medicare. But in every version of the plan, it would just be one more choice competing with private insurers.
— Keep what you’ve got. The president says that if you like your health coverage, you can keep it. Well, maybe. Nothing in the bills would force people to give up their coverage, but depending on how the final legislation is written, it might not be up to them.

The employer-provided insurance millions of Americans have is a voluntary benefit; employers could drop it if the bill made it easier and cheaper for them to let employees move to a private plan or a public alternative. That would be less likely to happen if an employer mandate required all but the smallest businesses to cover their employees and levied a tax or a fee if they did not.

— Illegal immigrants will be covered. In fact, no bill says this, and a key House bill explicitly forbids it. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, claims that the Congressional Budget Office says 5.6 million illegal immigrants would be covered. FactCheck.org says King is distorting CBO’s findings, which say no such thing.

The Internet can spread misinformation like wildfire, but it can also be a powerful tool for discovering the truth, as fact-checking sites are proving. It might help dial down the fear and anger if Americans reacted to claims about health reform from either side by logging on and looking them up.

(Speaking out: A rally against government-run health care Thursday in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Nationwide, town hall meetings on health care have been disrupted by protesters. / By Hans Pennink, AP)

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