Warner: Discussion Must Include End-Of-Life Care

Some of the hottest debate over health care this summer has been about end-of-life care. Critics warn of "Death Panels" that would decide who gets life saving treatment. President Obama and others counter that claim is baseless. In Virginia Thursday, Democratic Senator Mark Warner held a town hall meeting designed to specifically address end-of-life issues.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's listen in now to a town hall meeting on end-of-life issues. One of the most explosive issues in the health care debate: end-of-life care. Critics, including Republican Sarah Palin, have warned of death panels, as she calls them, that would decide who gets life-saving treatment. President Obama and other Democrats counter that such claims are completely false.

Yesterday in Virginia, one senator discussed this, and NPR's Don Gonyea was listening.

DON GONYEA: Mark Warner, the junior senator from Virginia, is a Democrat who describes himself as a radical centrist still hoping for a health care overhaul that can win bipartisan support. But yesterday, in the basement of a Lutheran church in Arlington, Virginia, he said it's vital that any discussion of health care include a thoughtful consideration of end-of-life issues.

Warner spoke of the kind of rhetoric Sarah Palin and others have been using.

Senator MARK WARNER (Democrat, Virginia): Some of the comments we've seen and some the statements that have been made by elected officials are embarrassing, outrageous and outright either based on ignorance or a horrible effort to simply scare and frighten people. And I think they, quite honestly, are disrespectful of all of the families who are struggling with these issues day in and day out.

GONYEA: This town hall is part of an attempt by Warner to turn down the heat on a topic that has turned so many town halls this summer into shouting matches. Attendance was limited. Word went out to area religious leaders, and many in the audience of about 100 cited their affiliation with a church, synagogue or mosque. Warner said their presence is important because of the role spiritual advisors play in working with people facing end-of-life choices.

To say this was a civilized discussion is an understatement. At one point, Malene Davis stood up. She's the CEO of an area hospice, and says too many people don't even know what hospice care is and that they're often afraid that it simply means giving up.

Ms. MALENE DAVIS (Chief Executive Officer, Capital Hospice): You know, everybody wants to go to heaven. Nobody wants to go today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DAVIS: And I think that, you know, we do have, really, this misunderstanding about what hospice care really is. And I agree with you. In 22 years, when I've described hospice care and services that it provides, people have said overwhelming, yeah, I want that.

GONYEA: Senator Warner has introduced a bill that would expand some elements of hospice treatment, allowing people to access in-home care and other hospice services far earlier than under current law, which says they must be in their final six months of life. Warner made this point repeatedly.

Sen. WARNER: A couple of things that this conversation is not about. It is not about limiting anyone's choices.

GONYEA: No one here stood up and said they don't want health care reform, but not everyone agreed on how to get it. Father Gerry Creedon is pastor of St. Charles Catholic Church in Arlington. He brought up the legacy of Edward Kennedy, and cited the late senator's readiness to compromise in order to get something.

Father GERRY CREEDON (Priest, St. Charles Catholic Church): I believe, with Senator Kennedy, that half a loaf's better than no loaf and that we should look for the possible.

GONYEA: But Father Creedon said focusing on end-of-life issues only gives critics something to target. He said the primary emphasis should be on expanding health care for the uninsured.

Warner told his audience that whatever passes this year won't be the final word on health care. He said it's something that will have to be assessed and tweaked and continually reworked, and to expect otherwise would be unrealistic. But he also stressed that the debate has to include just this kind of unheated give and take.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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