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.
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.”
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 FactCheck.org. 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.”