WASHINGTON — For more than a decade in Congress, Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer has been known for his ever-present bow-tie and tireless advocacy of bikes.
So it is something of a surprise to the Portland Democrat that he has earned a new measure of fame in recent days — as author of a health-care provision that some critics say would set up a “death panel.”
In a widely quoted Facebook posting, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin charged that federal bureaucrats would play God, ruling on whether ailing seniors or children with Down syndrome — such as Palin’s son Trig — are worthy of health care. Palin called the proposal “downright evil.”
Many news organizations — including The Associated Press — debunked Palin’s claim. The provision that caused the uproar would authorize Medicare to pay doctors for voluntary counseling about end-of-life care.
But Blumenauer says he is astounded that Palin and other critics have not tempered their bleak descriptions of the health care bill.
“It’s deliberate at this point,” Blumenauer said of Palin’s failure to correct her Aug. 7 Facebook posting. “If she wasn’t deliberately lying at the beginning, she is deliberately allowing a terrible falsehood to be spread with her name.”
Blumenauer singled out another prominent Republican, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, saying he has “linked arms with Sarah Palin and death panels.” While Gingrich has not used the term “death panel,” he has declined several opportunities to denounce Palin’s claim.
“You are asking us to trust turning power over to the government, when there are clearly people in America who believe in establishing euthanasia, including selective standards,” Gingrich said Sunday on the ABC’s “This Week.”
Blumenauer called the comments despicable and part of an orchestrated effort by Republicans to discredit the health care overhaul and scare seniors.
In nearly four decades of public life, “this is the starkest example I’ve ever seen of how, if we’re not careful, political discourse dissolves into some type of partisan cage-fighting, where there are no rules and anything goes,” said Blumenauer, 60.
Palin did not respond to requests for comment. But in a Facebook posting late Wednesday night, Palin defended her original claim, which President Barack Obama and other Democrats have criticized.
“With all due respect, it’s misleading for the president to describe this section as an entirely voluntary provision that simply increases the information offered to Medicare recipients,” she said, noting that the provision authorizes consultations whenever a Medicare recipient’s health changes significantly or when they enter a nursing home.
Since the bill’s intent is to reduce overall health care costs, it’s logical to assume that care for seniors may be curtailed, Palin said.
“It’s all just more evidence that the Democratic legislative proposals will lead to health care rationing, and more evidence that the top-down plans of government bureaucrats will never result in real health care reform,” she wrote.
Rick Tyler, a spokesman for Gingrich, said Blumenauer was following a Democratic tactic of linking all Republicans to Palin.
“Obviously Newt didn’t embrace her euphemism of death panels. But he said to the larger point, there is a concern that people have about allowing government to be involved in these decisions,” Tyler said. “She’s raising a point we should discuss.”
Blumenauer said the measure he supports would merely allow Medicare to pay doctors for voluntary counseling sessions that address end-of-life issues. Topics include living wills, designating a close relative or a trusted friend as a health care proxy and information about pain medications for chronic discomfort.
The measure would block funds for counseling that presents suicide or assisted suicide as an option, Blumenauer said, calling references to death panels or euthanasia “mind-numbing.”
“It’s a blatant lie, and everybody who has checked it agrees,” he said.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said this week that Palin and other critics were not helping the GOP by throwing out false claims.
“Quite honestly, I’m so offended at that terminology, because it absolutely isn’t” in the bill, Murkowski said. “There is no reason to gin up fear in the American public by saying things that are not included in the bill.”
Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Republican who co-sponsored a similar measure in the Senate, said it was “nuts” to claim the bill encourages euthanasia.
“You’re putting the authority in the individual rather than the government,” Isakson said. “I don’t know how that got so mixed up.”
Blumenauer said the controversy was helping Democrats in a “perverse way.”
By continuing to spread a widely refuted claim, Republican critics are undercutting their own credibility, he said. The controversy has drawn more attention to the original proposal, which passed largely unnoticed when a health overhaul was approved by three House committees.
“This has taken on an outsized significance and so more people are paying attention to it than ever before,” Blumenauer said. “I think you will see more people use this to say, ‘What will happen to me if I am in an accident? Here’s what I want.’ More people are going to take matters into their own hands.”