After 'death panel' furor, Blumenauer to try again

PORTLAND — When Rep. Earl Blumenauer pitched the idea of reimbursing doctors for end-of-life counseling last year to Congress, it met its demise after Sarah Palin claimed it would amount to setting up "death panels" that decided whether someone was worthy of getting health care.

Blumenauer said Wednesday he plans to resuscitate the legislation. He said the substance will be essentitially the same, but the bill will be "tailored, renamed and focused" to make it less of a political target.

At a news conference, the Oregon Democrat reflected on the furor that played out over his idea last year: "How did something so simple and direct get mixed up with death panels and weirdness?"

"We think we have a piece of legislation about which there can be no legitimate dispute," he said.

Blumenauer wants to allow Medicare to pay doctors for voluntary counseling sessions that address end-of-life issues. The conversations between doctor and patient would include living wills, making a close relative or a trusted friend your health care proxy, learning about hospice as an option for the terminally ill, and information about pain medications for people suffering chronic discomfort.

The sessions would be covered every five years, more frequently if someone is gravely ill.

When Blumenauer introduced the idea in Congress last year, conservatives attacked it as government intrusion into the end-of-life planning process.

Palin said in a Facebook message that it would amount to rationed health care doled out by "death panels," and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said there shouldn't be a government program "that determines if you're going to pull the plug on grandma."

The "death panels" claim was debunked — nonpartisan fact-checking organization PolitiFact named it the 2009 political "Lie of the Year."

Blumenauer's latest effort could face just as much opposition as the provision he offered last year.

Greg Leo, spokesman for the Oregon Republican Party, said: "It should not be a matter of government deciding this kind of counseling." Leo added, "We are concerned that the health care legislation opens the door to make this kind of counseling mandatory."

Grassley's spokeswoman, Jill Kozeny, said he is not opposed to end-of-life planning, but rather the idea of government intrusion into the process.

"He's expressed caution, not specific to any one bill, but as a matter of policy, about pairing end-of-life counseling with government health care programs that are structured primarily to reduce costs," Kozeny said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

Blumenauer will introduce the legislation next week as its sole sponsor, though a spokeswoman said he expects support from those who cosponsored the measure in 2009.

Blumenauer said the bill could avoid situations like the 2005 Terri Schiavo case, which generated national media attention when her husband asked to have a feeding tube removed but her family resisted. If Shiavo had made her wishes known before she collapsed in 1990, Blumenauer said, the matter would have been avoided.

With Blumenauer at the news conference was Colleen O'Kelley, whose father, Richard, agreed to end-of-life planning before dying in 2008. Her doctor, Glenn Rodriguez, oversaw his care.

"This journey could have been quite different without candid conversations with Dr. Rodriguez," O'Kelley said.

O'Kelley said her mother likes Rodriguez so much that she wishes he could be cloned, prompting Blumenauer to race to the podium and say that he was definitely not in favor of human cloning.

"That's illegal," he said. "I don't want to upset Sarah Palin."

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