The lies behind the alarmism

In a more sane American political environment, no one, least of all the Republican leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, could get away with accusing the other side of trying to kill old people.

That's no sane environment out there, though.

In today's political world, the radio talk-show ranting of right-wing blowhards gets mimicked in the official statements of John Boehner, the Republican leader of the House.

Right-wingers, official and otherwise, cry that President Obama is trying to force old people to consent to getting themselves euthanized to save everyone else's health care costs. Why, it's as plain as day, or so they allege, on Page 425 of the House health care bill.

Then you start getting e-mails that have been forwarded 20 to 30 times to sound this very alarm. Seniors of fragile health and perhaps failing mind begin to panic: This president wants to get them out of the way so he and other younger people can save money.

From the halls of the nation's Capitol, Boehner puts out a statement saying this actually might be so. This provision on Page 425, the minority leader officially intones, "may start us down a treacherous path toward government-encouraged euthanasia if enacted into law."

"May" and "down a treacherous path" -- these are weasel words that allow one to spread nonsense without actually believing or endorsing the nonsense.

Boehner writes that, even if the provision doesn't say what he warns it may say, the emergence of this very kind of question shows that we need to slow this bill lest the mad rush actually causes us to enact something so liberally sinister.

There lies the real point. You can't beat the bill and thereby protect the failed and unsustainable status quo in American health care unless you first slow the bill.

The cynical faux-alarmists are saying that this provision on Page 425 requires seniors on Medicare to meet with their doctor once every five years to agree to how to end their life.

Here's what Page 425 actually provides: Doctors would be authorized to get a Medicare reimbursement once every five years for counseling a senior patient on options for end-of-life medical services. No person would be required to sit for such counseling. No person would be required, once counseled, to agree to anything.

This has to do with living wills, by which persons may sign documents declining to be kept artificially alive by feeding tubes and breathing machines.

Wider use of these living wills would save health care costs, yes, because the great bulk of medical expense is at the very end of life. But they'd also save dignity.

Many people want to be allowed to die naturally when they are effectively dead naturally. But other people tend to extol the sanctity of life on a religious basis and recoil against the idea that a person or his loved ones could tell a doctor not to install some available device and effectively choose to die.

People are fully entitled to disagree on that. And it's a fair argument whether public dollars ought to be expended in a health care reform bill to try to encourage something that might better be encouraged nongovernmentally.

But people are not entitled to call a proposal to reimburse doctors for advising patients on end-of-life options a mandate that Grandma be killed.

Anyway, this isn't even Obama's bill. This is the House Democratic leadership's bill, the one the Blue Dog Democrats held up. This has nothing to do with a still-nonexistent Senate bill.

If this provision, reasonable though it be, survives even the House negotiation, much less the inevitable conference committee, I'll be shocked.

That it almost certainly will get deleted will provide positive reinforcement to this insanity.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@