RNC chair Steele works to scare seniors about healthcare

The RNC chair pens a misleading Op-Ed for the Washington Post, pushing myths about healthcare reform

Published August 24, 2009 4:35PM (EDT)

In Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele's defense, at least his Monday Op-Ed for the Washington Post didn't explicitly mention the fictitious "death panels." Unfortunately, that's about the only thing that can be said in defense of the article – or of the Post's decision to run it, for that matter.

In the piece, Steele outlines a Republican "Seniors' Health Care Bill of Rights," which will purportedly "ensure that our greatest generation will receive access to quality health care." It's, essentially, an attack on the elderly voters who form an important part of the Democratic Party's base and who could be the key to passing – or defeating – healthcare reform. And so it follows some now-familiar paths, warning, for instance, of "government boards rationing treatments based on age." (Read: "death panels.")

Ironically, one of Steele's first complaints – after he says that "President Obama's plan for a government-run health-care system is the wrong prescription" – is of a potential cut in Medicare funding. As Time's Joe Klein observes:

What makes Steele's column especially hilarious is that it's about health care for senior citizens – actually, it's an attempt to scare senior citizens – but it never mentions that Medicare is "a government-run health-care system." One would think that the Washington Post's intrepid editors would have force Steele to cut or modify Steele's lie about Obama's "government-run" plan, and one would hope that the Post's editors would ask Steele to point out the Medicare – the program he wants to "save" – is precisely such a plan.

This omission is made even more noticeable with Steele's second point: "We need to prohibit government from getting between seniors and their doctors."

There are numerous inaccuracies in the Op-Ed as well. In one of the more striking examples, Steele writes, "[I]f there are going to be only so many heart surgeries in a given year, the Democrats figure government will get more bang for its buck if more young and middle-aged people get them."

At some point, that sentence may have had a loose relationship with reality. But by the time it was published, it didn't even have much of a connection to the myths and misreadings from which it was drawn. What Steele was referring to was a popular falsehood that's sprung up around Ezekiel Emanuel, a bioethicist and the brother of White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who's advising the administration on reform. (My full debunking of the rumors surrounding Ezekiel Emanuel can be read here.) Emanuel and his coauthors have discussed, in an academic way, various principles for the distribution of certain scarce medical resources.

In that sense, Steele got within striking distance of the truth – that discussion applies to things like heart transplants, where there are a finite number of donor hearts available. But Steele wrote that the proposals Emanuel discussed applied to "heart surgeries," which isn't the case – indeed, Emanuel has specifically said that the system he's pushing wouldn't work for healthcare generally.

Steele also said that such the rationale for such a system is that "the Democrats figure government will get more bang for its buck if more young and middle-aged people get them." That's absurd, and the Post never should have allowed it to be printed. Ezekiel Emanuel and his coauthors aren't accountants; they're bioethicists working to come up with the best, most ethical solution to the problem of scarcity. In fact, the paper that's cited on the right as evidence against Emanuel sums up their purpose and approach in its concluding sentence: "To achieve a just allocation of scarce medical interventions, society must embrace the challenge of implementing a coherent multiprinciple framework rather than relying on simple principles or retreating to the status quo."

The RNC chair also alluded strongly to the claims that euthanasia is included in the current Democratic reform proposals, writing:

[W]e need to prevent government from dictating the terms of end-of-life care. Many of the most significant costs of care come in the last six months of a patient's life, and every American household must consider how to treat their loved ones. Obama's government-run health "reform" would pay for seniors' meetings with a doctor to discuss end-of-life care. While nonthreatening at first, something that is quite normal for a family to do becomes troublesome when the government gets involved. Seniors know that government programs that seem benign at first can become anything but. The government should simply butt out of conversations about end-of-life care and leave them to seniors, their families and their doctors.

There are various problems with that whole thing as a factual assertion. But my former colleague Michael Scherer points out the most basic: Government wouldn't be getting involved; it would simply provide Medicare coverage for the conversations between seniors and their doctors that Steele claims to support.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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