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Death Panels Already Exist

The Concept of Death Panels and Insurance Companies

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Updated September 18, 2009

Thanks to Sarah Palin, death panels are a topic of almost every discussion regarding health care reform in America. Because a portion of the proposed health care reform bill includes a provision for end-of-life counseling, many people worry that this will be the government's way of deciding who is worthy of receiving life saving treatment -- and who is not.

While accusations of government-sponsored euthanasia and forcing people into hospice care are ridiculous fallacies, the concept of "death panels" isn't a new one. Many people believe that death panels are already being held at American insurance companies all the time. Some recent examples in the news:

  • A 17-year-old girl from Glendale, CA died in 2007 after her insurance company, Cigna, refused to pay for a liver transplant. Top executives at Cigna claimed that an analysis of her condition revealed that she was already too sick with leukemia to receive the transplant. A matching donor was found, but because of the insurance company's denial, her opportunity came and passed. Because of public outcry, Cigna reversed it's decision after 10 days, but it was already too late.
  • In June 2008, Robin Beaton, a retired nurse from Waxahachie, Texas, found out she had breast cancer and needed a double mastectomy. Blue Cross, Beaton's insurance provider, informed the hospital two days before the surgery that they wouldn't pay for the surgery until they finished an review of five years of her medical history -- which could take three months.

    Not long into the investigation, the insurer canceled her policy. They said Beaton had incorrectly recorded her weight on her insurance application and had neglected to disclose that she had taken heart medication in the past. After an intervention from her member of Congress, Blue Cross did reinstate Beaton's coverage in October 2008. By then, her tumor had grown significantly and required removal of lymph nodes in addition to her breasts.

  • Baily Robinson, a 7-year-old boy who suffered from adrenoleukodystrophy, a rare genetic disorder affecting the nervous system, required thousands of dollars of medical treatment before he died in 2005. His parent's insurance company refused to pay for $200,000 worth of medical bills. After numerous appeals and hiring a lawyer, the Robinsons were able to recover much of their out-of-pocket expenses, but missed valuable time to care for their son during his tragic illness and time to grieve his death while they disputed one denied claim after another.

This is a tiny sample of patients who are denied payment for medical care by their insurance companies. Sometimes denial of payment is justified, for example if someone blatantly lied on their insurance application or omitted a serious illness like diabetes. Sometimes procedures are not really necessary, or they are tried too soon -- a physician ordering an MRI before trying x-rays or CAT scans, for example.

But some people believe that often times, insurance companies are denying claims just to save money. They say head honchos from major corporations and small insurance companies alike are gathering around a table and deciding who's worthy of the organ transplant or the life-saving cancer surgery. These individuals equate this to the "death panels" that many people fear will happen when we pass health care reform.

My Opinion

The American health system is broken. Thousands of people in America are uninsured and thousands more are under-insured. As the examples above illustrate, even those with adequate coverage aren't always protected. Although the need for some kind of reform is clear, we can't decide who to trust to manage our health care.

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