I like Johnny Isakson. I’ve known him since his time in the Georgia Legislature, and in those days we were often on the same side of crusades. The most memorable was probably an effort to force the hidebound Democrats then in charge to accept substantial ethics legislation. House Speaker Tom Murphy and others fought that effort, but in the end, with public support, we won.
While our political leanings may be different, Isakson has always been personable and reasonable. He has long had a reputation of being willing to work with the other side to get things done, which has led some in his party to question his loyalty.
In the increasingly bitter health-care debate, the Georgia senator seems to have become trapped in a position he doesn’t like much, and the resulting contortions aren’t pretty.
As you know, some of the criticism of the House plan centers on claims that it requires senior citizens to undergo mandatory end-of-life counseling at least once every five years. That claim — absolutely false in its own right — has then been further twisted by some on the right into a suggestion that it will lead to “death panels” condemning the disabled and elderly to euthanasia, as a way to save on medical costs.
On her Facebook page, for example, Sarah Palin suggested such panels could order the death of her son Trig, who has Down Syndrome.
“The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of health care,” Palin wrote. “Such a system is downright evil.”
And it surely would be, if such a system existed or was even contemplated. In reality, the House legislation (relevant text is here) would merely add counseling about living wills and end-of-life orders to knee replacements and other medical procedures that can be compensated under Medicare.
Under the bill, those sessions would be entirely voluntary and thus ought to be utterly noncontroversial. Such consultations allow people to make difficult decisions about their health care beforehand, at a time when they are mentally, physically and emotionally able to do so. As in the tragic Terri Schiavo case, once you are incapacitated, that opportunity is gone.
Legal and medical experts strongly endorse such counseling. So does Isakson. In 2007, he helped sponsor the “Medicare End-of-Life Care Planning Act,” which according to the Congressional Research Service proposed “to provide for Medicare coverage of an end-of-life planning consultation, including discussion of advance directives, as part of an initial preventive physical examination.” The full text of the bill is available here. Among Isakson’s co-sponsors were Democratic senators Ted Kennedy and Jay Rockefeller.
While that bill never passed, last month Isakson proposed a similar amendment to the Senate’s version of the health-care reform proposal, and his language was incorporated into the bill with strong bipartisan support.
In an interview earlier this week with Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, Isakson was asked how such common-sense ideas came to be distorted into a euthanasia program.
“I have no idea,” he said. “I understand — and you have to check this out — I just had a phone call where someone said Sarah Palin’s web site had talked about the House bill having death panels on it where people would be euthanized. How someone could take an end-of-life directive or a living will as that is nuts. You’re putting the authority in the individual rather than the government. I don’t know how that got so mixed up.”
So far, so good. It truly is nuts to make such a claim. So, at his health-care town hall on Tuesday, President Obama cited Isakson’s support for end-of-life planning to rebut claims that “death panels” would be convened under the plan.
“… the intention of the members of Congress was to give people more information so that they could handle issues of end-of-life care when they’re ready, on their own terms. It wasn’t forcing anybody to do anything,” Obama pointed out. “This is I guess where the rumor came from. The irony is that actually one of the chief sponsors of this bill originally was a Republican — then House member, now senator, named Johnny Isakson from Georgia — who very sensibly thought this is something that would expand people’s options. And somehow it’s gotten spun into this idea of ‘death panels.’ I am not in favor of that. So just I want to — I want to clear the air here.”
That statement put Isakson into a tough position with his party, undercutting one of the most emotionally powerful arguments used by its most irresponsible members and supporters. So late in the day, his office put out a statement trying to separate himself from Obama.
“The White House and others are merely attempting to deflect attention from the intense negativity caused by their unpopular policies,” Isakson was quoted as saying. “I never consulted with the White House in this process and had no role whatsoever in the House Democrats’ bill. I categorically oppose the House bill and find it incredulous that the White House and others would use my amendment as a scapegoat for their misguided policies. My Senate amendment simply puts health care choices back in the hands of the individual and allows them to consider if they so choose a living will or durable power of attorney. The House provision is merely another ill-advised attempt at more government mandates, more government intrusion, and more government involvement in what should be an individual choice.”
The difference, Isakson’s office claims, is that his amendment “empowers the individual to make their own choices on these critical issues, rather than the government incentivizing doctors to conduct counseling on government-mandated topics.”
Isakson’s point that he had nothing to do with the House language is valid, and to the degree Obama suggested otherwise, he was wrong. However, Isakson’s effort to claim that his approach is in some important way different from the House approach is strained at best and in this context misleading. His approach “incentivizes” such counseling the same way the House bill does, by offering doctors financial compensation for conducting such sessions.
Isakson opposes the president’s health-care proposal and voted against the overall Senate version. That’s fine. Nothing Obama said suggests otherwise. But on the particular issue of end-of-life counseling, the differences between the president and the senator are very minor; in the context of bizarre claims about “death panels” and euthanasia, those differences have no relevance whatsoever.
Isakson could have, and should have, noted his opposition to the Democrats’ overall approach to health care, reiterated his support for end-of-life counseling and his condemnation of the “death panel” lunacy, and left it at that. But sometimes politics gets the best even of good people.