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Will facts finally kill new ‘death-panel’ hoax?

Gary Schwitzer
Courtesy of HNR
Gary Schwitzer

Gary Schwitzer wrote a fiery post on his Minnesota-based Health News Watchdog blog Wednesday about how his 89-year-old mother became “afraid and confused” after receiving an e-mail about a conversation that took place on a conservative radio show last fall.

The conversation, which has apparently been circulating in conservative corners of the Web for a couple of months, involved a new incarnation of the old, nasty “death panel” lie.

“Nothing makes me more upset than people fear-mongering and lying about health care to suit their own interests,” Schwitzer wrote.

“This one hit pretty close to home,” he added.

‘Jeff,’ the brain surgeon
The story started last Nov. 22 when someone calling himself “Jeff” phoned “The Mark Levin Show” and told its conservative host (nicknamed, apparently, “The Great One”) that he had some disturbing information about President Barack Obama’s health care law.

Here’s Media Matters’ summary of the on-air exchange that followed (although you can also listen to the exchange in the audio clip below):

Jeff claimed to be a “brain surgeon” who had just “returned from Washington, D.C.,” where he and other neurological doctors [members of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS) and the Congress of Neurological Surgeons (CNS) had reviewed a document allegedly issued by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regarding “Obama’s new health care plan for advanced neurosurgical care.”
Jeff went on to claim that the document “did not call [patients older than 70] patients, they called them units” and stated that “if you’re over 70 and you’d come into an emergency room and you’re on government-supported health care that you get comfort care” instead of medically necessary neurological surgery. Jeff further claimed the document mandated “ethics committee[s],” to which Levin replied: “So, Sarah Palin was right. We’re going to have these death panels, aren’t we?” Jeff responded, “Oh, absolutely,” and made a comparison to Nazi Germany.

On Nov. 29, an audio of the call was posted on Fox Nation under the headline, “Neurosurgeon Dishes on Obamacare ‘Death Panels,’ Administration Calls Patients ‘Units.’ ” And more than a month later, on Jan. 3, the conservative news website WorldNet Daily ran an article titled “Hear Brain Surgeon’s ‘Death Panel’ Warning.” It quotes Levin as saying, “My call screener was very comfortable that he [“Jeff”] was what he said he was, and I have no basis to disparage anything he said. He knew of the conference, he knew who was holding the conference, he knew who was holding the various meetings at the conference, and he knew the subject matter thoroughly.”

Needless to say, the story has spread like wildfire. As Schwitzer pointed out in his post, there are “pages and pages — dozens and dozens of search results from websites that passed along this hoax.”

Neurosurgeons fact-checked
Despite “Jeff’s” inflammatory charges, none of the news sources that ran the story seemed to bother to check if “Jeff” was really who he said he was. That factchecking was ultimately undertaken not by Fox Nation or WorldNet Daily editors, but by neurosurgeons. On Nov. 28 (before, I should point out, WorldNet Daily ran its story), the AANS and CNS published a joint statement (which they updated on Jan. 3) in which they noted that the call from “Jeff” had “contained several factual inaccuracies” (which is putting it mildly):

The AANS and CNS are unaware of any federal government document directing that advanced neurosurgery for patients over 70 years of age will not be indicated and only supportive care treatment will be provided. Furthermore, in conducting our own due diligence, the caller who identified himself as a brain surgeon is not actually a neurosurgeon, nor was there any session at the recent Congress of Neurological Surgeons’ scientific meeting in Washington, DC at which a purported government document calling for the rationing of neurosurgical care was discussed.
Neurosurgeons are committed to providing timely, compassionate, and state of the art treatment for all patients — regardless of age — who have neurosurgical conditions. As such, we have requested numerous times that this podcast be removed from Mark Levin’s website as it portrays inaccurate information which could potentially be harmful to the patients that we serve.

Interestingly, the AANS and CNS have apparently identified “Jeff.” “One of our neurosurgeons knows who he is, and they had a conversation,” Alison Dye, a spokesperson for the groups told He is “in the medical field,” whatever that means, but not a neurosurgeon or part of either organization.

The harm of fear-mongering
By spreading fear, such hoaxes can be incredibly harmful. And that’s what’s angered Schwitzer. His own elderly mother “is an example of the harm described in the AANS statement,” he wrote.

“Whoever ‘Jeff’ was,” he added, “I hope he and his radio host — “The Great One” — somehow someday get a glimpse of the harm their fear-mongering can cause. I’m not talking about the power trip that show biz provides from the safety of a studio taking calls on a cell phone spouting unverified information from unvetted sources. I’m talking about the real world with real old people like my mother who believe this crap and get confused and upset and hurt in the process.”

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/12/2012 - 11:24 am.

    More proof that Fox News is Faux news, and that people will believe anything that supports their preconceptions.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 01/12/2012 - 12:29 pm.

    “Death panel” is an incendiary word for a factual reality that exists in countries with socialized medical industries.

    That is to say, it’s an irrefutable fact that in Canada, the UK, Norway, Germany & etc. services, drugs and equipment is/are rationed, and sometimes that rationing comes at the cost of human lives.

    It would come as a surprise to absolutely no one with an IQ above a peach pit that when something is “free”, more people want it. Doesn’t matter what it is, or even whether they need the thing or not “get it while the getting is good” is human nature.

    And even if they didn’t there is only so much of anything to go around, and that includes medical care. Is there a secret location where a cabal of bureaucrats decide who lives and who dies? No. That outcome is the inherent consequence of the fact that it’s simply impossible to serve everyone equally.

    Not fair? Welcome to life on Earth.

    So while it may be accurate to call death panel talk unnecessarily inflammatory, it’s really not accurate to call it false, or a hoax.

  3. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 01/12/2012 - 01:23 pm.

    You didn’t read the article, did you? What was said on the talk show was a lie and a hoax. The “facts” simply did not exist.

    For what it’s worth, by your definition, we already have death panels. The insurance companies are allowed to deny care to people who have paid premiums for that care.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/12/2012 - 01:34 pm.

    As is often the case, Mr. Swift is both correct and not.

    It’s certainly true that no society on the planet can provide all the possible medical care to its every citizen. That fact has nothing to do with the kind or style of health care system available to that society. It’s likewise true that in Canada, the UK, Norway, Germany, and most of the developed world medical services, devices and medication are rationed, and that rationing sometimes means someone dies.

    What’s left unsaid is that the same thing happens already in the United States, and has happened in the United States for decades – long before Mr. Obama came on the scene. Health care in the United States is rationed by wealth. In most other countries, it’s rationed by policy, precisely because, as Mr. Swift so elegantly puts it, “…there is only so much of anything to go around, and that includes medical care.” Quite a few thoughtful writers have been making that point for decades.

    We can’t afford to provide to every single person the quantity and quality of medical care that we’d all like our mothers to get. That is, indeed, “life on Earth,” and it means that it’s not only possible, but likely, that somewhere along the way, many of us will not receive some medical regiment that *might* (no guarantees) do us some good, but that is very expensive.

    Using the term “death panels” is not only unnecessarily inflammatory, it’s also false and a hoax, by Mr. Swift’s own admission. “Is there a secret location where a cabal of bureacrats decide who lives and who dies? No.”

    The closest we come to a “death panel” is the executive office suite or wing of the nation’s larger health insurance companies, where those who are paid well to do so decide which treatments will be covered by client policies and which ones will not. Those of us without such policies will have to throw ourselves on the mercy of the rest. Good luck.

  5. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 01/12/2012 - 03:32 pm.

    Ray’s right, rationing does occur here, but it happens a *lot* less than it does to people suffering under a socialized medical system.

    That’s because when faced with death, we have the choice to pay to get healed. Yes, if you’re underinsured it *might* cost you your house, but when the alternative is to move into the dirt that doesn’t seem too awfully extreme.

    In Canada, some doctors have started violating the law (it’s against Canadian law to open a private hospital) to offer our Canuk friends the same choice we take for granted.

    I suggest they call themselves the “Life Panel”.

  6. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/12/2012 - 04:54 pm.

    First of all, there is no ‘Canadian health system’. Each province has its own, subject to some overriding Federal legislation. Average wait times for non life threatening services are less than what I’ve experienced in Minnesota.
    Medical emergencies are dealt with at least as quickly as they are here (have you ever waited to get care in an emergency room in a big city?).

    Second, Canada (like Canada, the UK, Norway, Germany) is a democracy. Its people have chosen their system. It is not a socialist system, since not all physicians are state employees and not all facilities are state owned. The UK comes closest in Western Europe to a socialized medical system.
    Maybe people in these countries have chosen their systems since they work better than ours.

    Parenthetically, based on the evidence, the best health delivery in the United States is the VA, which IS state maintained and operated.

    I wonder if Mr. Swift has any first hand experience with the European health care system? We’ve made use of it in both Spain and the Netherlands; in both cases we found it much easier and quicker to get help than here.

  7. Submitted by Lance Groth on 01/12/2012 - 06:02 pm.

    We’ve had more extreme rationing here in the U.S. than any of the “socialist” systems Mr. Swift mentions, for quite some time. Do you have a preexisting condition? So sorry, we won’t cover you. Or, sure, we’ll cover you, your premium is $2500/month – and it doesn’t cover the thing you already have. Bizarro-world insurance – it’s only available for those who don’t need it.

    Mr. Obama’s reforms fix that problem, but our republican friends promise to send us back to wealth-based rationing if they can capture the White House. Gee, thanks. Tell me again how you’re not the party of big business and the wealthy??

    And while Mr. Swift considers it entirely reasonable for one to be financially ruined simply because one becomes sick, I consider it to be the immoral and inevitable outcome of a health care system that is based on profit and one’s ability to pay. Or, as Mr. Limbaugh has said, “Health care is a privilege, not a right” – meaning a privilege of the wealthy. Compassionate conservatism at its finest.

    Health care is entirely inappropriate for a profit based, private insurance model – for any society that gives a damn about its citizens. Let alone the “greatest” on earth. Life on earth is not inherently fair, that is true. But human beings can be. They need only consult their conscience. If they have one.

  8. Submitted by Pat Berg on 01/13/2012 - 08:03 am.

    #5: The comment “rationing does occur here, but it happens a *lot* less than it does to people suffering under a socialized medical system” is the sort of statement that really needs the support of some kind of reliable citation (with documented/documentable statistics) to be regarded as anything more than anecdotal.

    And while the same applies to #7 saying “We’ve had more extreme rationing here in the U.S. than any of the ‘socialist’ systems Mr. Swift mentions, for quite some time”, I find the argument he offers – that facing financial ruin as the result of a health issue is the “immoral and inevitable outcome of a health care system that is based on profit and one’s ability to pay” far more compelling.

    It’s yet another unfortunate example of the “Let them eat cake” mentality which seems to be taking hold in this country.

  9. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 01/13/2012 - 09:16 am.

    Department of Community Health and Epidemiology, Dalhousie University.

    “Canada has been able to develop a fairly successful system of healthcare rationing by balancing the conflicting concerns of equal access and cost efficiency, federal funding and provincial control, and public sector management and private sector provision.”

    ==>”Financial constraints limit the kinds of services included within the notion of equal access, however, forcing healthcare providers to make difficult choices about who will receive a particular healthcare service.”< == Death panel *may* be too harsh a word, though.....

  10. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 01/13/2012 - 10:02 am.

    I see that Mr. Swift has been here with another one of his right wing rants, this time against socialized medicine. The phrase “socialized medicine” has been used in a knee-jerk way to argue about improvements to US health-care since Medicare begun. People are becoming skeptical of this argument as more and more realize that we simply cannot continue with our uncompetitive health care system. It is sucking the life out of the country. Even businesses realize this and health care costs are killing them. (Figuratively.)

    First I note that the point of this article – that squawk radio fear mongering is harmful to society – was completely ignored by Mr. Swift.

    Second, Mr. Swift ignores the evidence about “socialized medicine” that demonstrates it to be superior to the current disgraceful situation in the US.

    See: U.S. scores dead last again in healthcare study


    “Americans spend twice as much as residents of other developed countries on healthcare, but get lower quality, less efficiency and have the least equitable system, according to a report released on Wednesday.”

    Not that I do not expect Mr. Swift to be swayed by logic, but other readers may be interested in fact-based arguments rather than diatribes.

    As my grandmother used to say: “Where are all the dead Canadians?”

  11. Submitted by Lance Groth on 01/13/2012 - 01:10 pm.

    It’s worth noting that, affordable insurance aside, there is another kind of rationing built into our system that occurs every day. I had a friend, an RN, who worked for a health insurance company. His job was to screen claims to determine whether or not the company would pay. Procedure “A” would be covered, but not procedure “B”. It didn’t matter if the patient’s doctor recommended procedure “B” as the appropriate treatment – an RN in the insurance company could and did override the MD’s best judgment, in terms of what they’d pay for. That is rationing, and while conservatives like to warn about a faceless bureaucrat getting between a patient and his doctor in a “socialized” system, we already have that with a faceless insurance company employee getting between a patient and his doctor.

  12. Submitted by Robert Finney PhD on 01/14/2012 - 02:07 pm.

    Medical Care to Die For

    Kaiser Permanente is Rosemary’s HMO baby. President Obama adopted the evil creature, anointed Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, who invented death panel rationing, to be its private tutor, and ordered American taxpayers to pay lifetime child support.

    Violations of patients’ rights and protections can mean life and death for vulnerable plain folk’s patients.

    Patient advocacy and documented investigations are posted on


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