California’s real death panels

The religious right and Republican opposition to health care reform in the USA has used propaganda which has little traction with reality. One of their assertions has been that health-care reform would mean ‘death panels’ deciding on whether old people can live. The irony is lost on them since the current system, dominated by the insurance companies does operate a sort of death panel, although one without any discussion.

As people who have seen the Michael Moore film ‘Sicko’ (see ) will recall from the film much of the business of insurance companies was comprised of trying to find a reason for not paying for treatment that sick people needed, even if it meant that they were destined to die. Moore concentrated on those people who were lucky enough to have health insurance rather than the tens of millions who don’t.

In the context of the current debate over health reform in the USA, the California Nurses Association has investigated the level of refusal to pay for treatment by these companies, in California. They discovered that 21% of claims were denied on average. In the first six months of 2009 denial rates were:

PacifiCare — 39.6 percent

Cigna — 32.7 percent

HealthNet — 30 percent

Kaiser Permanente — 28.3 percent

Blue Cross — 27.9 percent

Aetna — 6.4 percent

The figures in absolute terms are staggering. The six top insurers in California rejected 47.7 million claims.  Each one is a potentially harrowing personal story. PacifiCare, with the worst of the refusal rates, denied a special procedure for treatment of bone cancer for Nick Colombo, a 17-year-old from Placentia. After protests organized by Nick’s family and friends, CNA/NNOC, and local activists, PacifiCare reversed its decision. But the delay resulted in critical time lost, and Nick ultimately died.

“This was his last effort and the procedure had worked before with people in Nick’s situation,” said his older brother Ricky.

Cigna, second in the list, gained notoriety two years ago for denying a liver transplant to 17 year old Nataline Sarkisyan of Northridge, and then reversing itself, tragically too late to save her life.

The top 18 insurance companies in the US racked up over $15 dollars of profit last year.

“The United States remains the only country in the industrialized world where human lives are sacrificed for private profit, a national disgrace that seems on the verge of perpetuation,” said Deborah Burger CNA leader.

“The routine denial of care by private insurers is like the elephant in the room no one in the present national healthcare debate seems to want to talk about,” Burger said.

“Nothing in any of the major bills advancing in the Senate or House or proposed by the administration would challenge this practice.”

CNA/NNOC supports an alternative approach, expanding Medicare to cover all Americans.

Data released in late August by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which tracks developed nations, found that among 30 industrial nations, the U.S. ranks last in life expectancy at birth for men, and 24th for women.

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