Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer, whose end-of-life-counseling language has inflamed the debate over healthcare reform, admits he was "stunned" by the reaction to the provision that sailed through the House Ways and Means Committee without opposition from Republicans.
The Portland Democrat says the experience has been the most discouraging in 37 years in elective politics. "It's very much about an agenda," he told Crosscut. "If it wasn't healthcare it would be energy or something else." Blumenauer, Congressman from Portland's Third District since 1996, ascribes the tone of the debate to "the collapse of the Republican Party," reflecting the disappearance of the sort of moderate Republicans he grew up with in Oregon.
Blumenauer, who joined the powerful Ways and Means Committee only in 2007, placed his amendment in HR 3200 as it passed the committee. His intent, which he says was shared by Republicans on the committee, is to improve patient-doctor communication when the end of life nears, to be sure patients understand all the options. Specifically, the language authorizes Medicare to pay doctors for counseling patients about end-of-life care, if the patient wishes. The Blumenauer language prohibits payment for counseling that involves physician-assisted suicide, which has been legalized by popular vote in Oregon and Washington.
Oregon's willingness to discuss end-of-life options, one widely acknowledged result of its "death with dignity" measure, may have inured Blumenauer to the furor that arose. First out of the box was Betsy McCaughey, a former lieutenant governor of New York and well-known polemicist, who claimed the elderly would be required to have counseling on assisted suicide. The claim was quickly debunked by the Pulitzer-Prize-winning independent fact checker, Poltifac.com, but not before the falsehood gained traction on the Republican right.
When former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin ramped up the attacks by envisioning "death panels" for the disabled and elderly, fact-checkers at The Associated Press termed those statements false. Palin on Thursday refused to retreat, causing Blumenauer to say he was "astounded" that Palin had not withdrawn her comments. "If she wasn't deliberately lying at the beginning, she is deliberately allowing a terrible falsehood to be spread with her name."
This willingness to spread outright false statements, the Oregon Democrat told Crosscut, is one of the most disturbing aspects of the new political climate. "This would never have happened in the politics of our youth," he observed. "This is not just a philosophical or policy dispute," he continued; "it's outright lying and then refusing to admit it when caught. They are fighting to stop the conversation [with disruptive acts at some healthcare forums]."
Blumenauer has rejected the large public forums on healthcare favored by some of his colleagues this month, favoring telephone forums that are less likely to attract political theater. Most Democratic congressmen in Blumenauer's neighborhood have braved the slings and arrows in face-to-face town halls, and Rep. Brian Baird, the Vancouver Democrat, announced Thursday that he will drop his phone-in town halls and hold in-person sessions beginning Tuesday.
The blue ribbon for greatest number of town halls goes to Rep. Peter DeFazio, the Eugene Democrat who has held or scheduled 14. The largest was the 3,000 people who turned out at an Everett stadium town hall sponsored by Rep. Rick Larsen. Oregon's other Democratic congressmen, Kurt Schrader and David Wu, also held in-person town halls. Blumenauer's decision to use telephone rather than microphone drew a "Rogue of the Week" award from Portland's Willamette Week, accusing him of "letting his fellow Democrats take the heat while he phones it in."
Prior to the explosion caused by his end-of-life amendment, Blumenauer did hold a large public healthcare forum with Howard Dean, the Democratic national chairman, which drew a large crowd pushing for a single-payer plan, which Blumenauer opposes. He notes that he has held other large meetings, and has for years used town halls and other forums within his district. The Associated Press reported, "at least 3,400 people participated" in his telephone town hall on Wednesday.
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