Thursday, August 13, 2009

Health Scare: Jerry Falwell's Liberty Counsel and the "Death Panels" Myth

Far-right Religious Group Behind "Death Panels" Myth also Behind other Health Care Reform Distortions
Facing South

When reporters asked former Alaska Gov. and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin where she got the misinformation she posted to her Facebook page about the health care reform bill creating a "death panel" to promote euthanizing the elderly and people with disabilities, her spokesperson pointed to the section in the House Democrats' legislation that begins on page 425.

If Palin or her staff had actually read the bill, they would have realized this section simply promotes advance care planning, which in fact puts the power to make decisions about end-of-life care in the hands of individuals -- not government panels.

So where did Palin get that bad information? It appears she pulled it from a set of talking points that has been making its way around the internet in recent weeks -- talking points assembled by the Liberty Counsel, a far-right religious group that's part of Jerry Falwell's Liberty University empire based in Lynchburg, Va.

Founded in 1989, the Liberty Counsel is a nonprofit law firm and public policy organization with offices in Florida, Virginia and Washington, D.C. Its founder and chairman is Mathew D. Staver, who also serves as the dean of Liberty University School of Law, and its president is Staver's wife, attorney Anita L. Staver. Before becoming a lawyer, Mathew Staver was a pastor in the Seventh Day Adventist Church, a conservative Protestant sect that believes in the infallibility of the Bible.

Liberty Counsel established its reputation with lawsuits successfully challenging the division of church and state and became affiliated with Liberty University/Falwell Ministries in 2004. Before he died in 2007, Falwell said that he could "think of no greater work being done right now in America for the sake of our religious freedom and Christian heritage than that being done by Liberty Counsel."

The group made the news recently for its legal fight in Florida against a gay couple who received a judge's permission to adopt two children they helped rescue from a crack house. It's also won widespread attention for its Help Save Christmas® campaign as well as its annual Day of Purity™ promoting sexual abstinence among youth.

On July 29, 2009, Liberty Counsel released its talking points about the health care reform bill. Among the many parts of the legislation it raises concerns about is the page cited by Palin, about which it states:

* Sec. 1233, Pg. 425, Lines 4-12 - Government mandates Advance (Death) Care Planning consultation. Think Senior Citizens and end of life. END-OF-LIFE COUNSELING. SOME IN THE ADMINISTRATION HAVE ALREADY DISCUSSED RATIONING HEALTH CARE FOR THE ELDERLY.

* Sec. 1233, Pg. 425, Lines 17-19 - Government WILL instruct and consult regarding living wills and durable powers of attorney. Mandatory end-of-life planning!

* Sec. 1233, Pg. 425-426, Lines 22-25, 1-3 - Government provides approved list of end-of-life resources, guiding you in death.

The section of the bill referred to does nothing resembling "rationing health care for the elderly" or "guiding you in death." As we already noted, it simply promotes advance care planning under the Medicare program by encouraging doctors to discuss with their patients advance directives such as living wills and durable powers of attorney -- legal documents that give individuals the power to state what they want in advance so that decision isn't left up to anyone else. You can read the entire bill with the pertinent page numbers here [pdf].

That got us wondering: What other distortions are contained in Liberty Counsel's talking points? We decided to fact-check some of the document's wilder claims against the actual text of the health care bill:

* THE CLAIM: "Sec. 122, Pg. 29, Lines 4-16 - YOUR HEALTH CARE WILL BE RATIONED!"

* THE FACTS: This refers to a section in Subtitle C of the legislation, which sets standards guaranteeing access to essential benefits. The lines the Liberty Counsel's talking point refers to actually limit the costs a family in a covered plan can be required to share in order to receive essential benefits. It does nothing to "ration" health care.

* THE CLAIM: "Sec. 1177, Pg. 354 - Government will RESTRICT enrollment of special needs people! 'Extension of Authority of Special Needs Plans to Restrict Enrollment.'"

* THE FACTS: This piece of the legislation refers to a section of the Social Security Act governing insurance for the elderly and disabled. It grandfathers in certain plans that already had contracts to run integrated Medicaid-Medicare programs for the impoverished elderly, and it requires the Department of Health and Human Services to analyze the impact of those plans. It restricts no one's enrollment in anything.

* THE CLAIM: "Sec. 1308, Pg. 489 - The government will cover Marriage and Family therapy. This will involve government control of your marriage."

* THE FACTS: This section of the bill does provide for insurance coverage of marriage and family therapy -- but by licensed, certified therapists, not government agents.

As this quick fact-check shows, the Liberty Counsel's talking points appear to have been assembled by someone who is either only barely literate or who simply scanned the document for language that could be twisted to serve their own propaganda purposes, with little regard for what the legislation actually says.

Either way, the document reflects poorly on the Liberty Counsel, and by extension Liberty University. We have a call in to Liberty Counsel Media Director Tessa Sturgill and will let you know what we hear from her.

To fight against the kind of blatant distortions being propagated by the Liberty Counsel and others, the White House has launched "Health Insurance Reform Reality Check," in which experts take on various pieces of misinformation being spread about the legislation.

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