The Real Death Panels
By Joe Conason
Posted on Aug 13, 2009
When Republican politicians and right-wing talking
heads bemoan the fictitious 'death panels' that they
claim would arise from health care reform, they are
concealing a sinister reality from their followers. The
ugly fact is that every year we fail to reform the
existing system, that failure condemns tens of
thousands of people to die-either because they have no
insurance or because their insurance companies deny
coverage or benefits when they become ill.
The best estimate of the annual death toll among
Americans of working age due to lack of insurance or
under-insurance is at least 20,000, according to
studies conducted over the past decade by medical
researchers, and the number is almost certainly rising
as more and more people lose their coverage as costs
continue to go up.
They die primarily because they didn't have the
coverage or the money to pay doctors and thus delayed
seeking treatment until it was too late. They don't get
checkups, screenings and other preventive care. That is
why uninsured adults are far more likely to be
diagnosed with a disease, such as cancer or heart
disease, at an advanced stage, which severely reduces
their chances of survival.
This isn't news. Seven years ago, the Institute of
Medicine found that approximately 18,000 Americans had
died in 2000 because they had no insurance. Using the
same methodology combined with Census Bureau estimates
of health coverage, the Urban Institute concluded that
the incidence of death among the uninsured was
enormous. Between 2000 and 2006, the last year of that
study, the total number of dead was estimated to have
reached 137,000-a body count more than double the
number of casualties in the Vietnam War.
adults are 25 percent more likely to die prematurely
than adults with private health insurance, and other
studies have warned that uninsured adults between the
ages of 55 and 64 are even more prone to die
prematurely. A lack of health insurance is the third-
leading cause of death for that age cohort, following
heart disease and cancer.
All those appalling figures, which are real rather than
mythical, do not include the casualties of insurance
company profiteering-namely, all the people, including
small children, who perish because of the anonymous
'death panels' that deny or delay coverage to consumers.
Perhaps the most notorious case in recent years was
that of Nataline Sarkisyan, the 17-year-old leukemia
patient whose liver transplant was held up by insurance
giant Cigna HealthCare. She died for no reason except
to protect Cigna's profit margin, but her unnecessary
and cruel demise was hardly unique.
Research by the American Medical Association found that
the nation's largest insurance companies deny somewhere
between 2 percent and 5 percent of all the claims
submitted by doctors. That rough estimate is the best
available because private insurers are not required to
reveal such statistics (although they certainly
maintain them), and the government does not collect them.
But in June, a House Energy and Commerce Committee
investigation found that three major insurance
companies-Golden Rule, Assurant and WellPoint-rescinded
the coverage of at least 20,000 people between 2003 and
2007 for minor errors, including typos, on their
paperwork; a pre-existing condition; or a family
member's medical history.
'They try to find something-anything-so they can say
that this individual was not truthful,' said Rep. Henry
committee probe. He warned that insurance companies
launch these nitpicking inquisitions whenever a
policyholder becomes ill with a certain kind of
condition-usually a costly and deadly one, such as
ovarian cancer or leukemia. The result is denial and
loss of coverage-and we now know that means increased
mortality for innocent people.
So, who are the members of the death panels?
You can find them among the corporate bureaucrats who
concoct excuses to deny coverage and throw the sick off
their rolls. You can find them among the politicians
and lobbyists who have stalled reform for years while
people died. You can find them among the morons who
show up to shout slogans at town halls rather than seek
solutions. And you can find them among the cable and
radio blabbers, who invent scary stories about reform
to conceal the sickening truth.
Joe Conason writes for The