How to Sell Assisted Suicide

DrRich | February 7th, 2011 - 9:51 am



This is the second in a series of articles on End-of-Life Care and Covert Rationing.  The first article can be found here.


In the summer of 2008, the Oregon Health Plan (the Medicaid plan in Oregon) injudiciously sent a letter to lung-cancer patient Barbara Wagner denying coverage for the expensive chemotherapy her doctor had recommended, and offering instead to cover palliative care “including doctor-assisted suicide.”

Despite the fact that there were plenty of distractions at the time (including a presidential election and the world’s economy on the brink of Armageddon), that letter unleashed a firestorm of public outrage. (If you have forgotten the outrage, simply Google the search terms “Barbara Wagner” and “suicide.”) Indeed, the outrage was sufficient to penetrate even the dulled sensibilities of the Oregon Health Plan’s executives. One Jim Sellers, a spokesman for the Oregon Health Plan, admitted to ABC News that “the letter to Wagner was a public relations blunder and something the state is ‘working on.’”

It is clear that the Oregon Health Plan executives were at least a little blindsided by the general reaction to their ham-handed denial letter. Denial letters, after all, are a routine activity, and they always list (as an aid to the patient) services which the third party payer judges to be reasonable alternatives to the denied care. While in this case the denied service which Ms. Wagner sought offered some reasonable hope for prolonged survival, and the service being held out by the Oregon Health Plan as an alternative (to say the least) did not, that’s really not so much different from the content of more “routine” denial letters. The difference is one of degree, and not of substance. So, Oregon Health Plan executives must surely have wondered, “What’s the big deal?”

One must try to be understanding of such insensitivity. It is a fundamental task of health plans – whether run by Medicare, Medicaid, or private insurance companies – to deliver unpleasant news to people whose lives are at stake, and it is normal (even necessary) for those who are charged with this task either to grow thick skin or to develop the traditional indifference of bureaucrats. It is perfectly predictable that such thick skin or indifference might dull one’s ability to discern subtle differences in degree among various denials of services, subtle differences that might call for more artful phraseologies than those employed in this instance by the Oregon Health Plan. The failure to recognize the need for a more artful denial letter, Mr. Sellers appeared to say, was the only problem in the case of Ms. Wagner. The solution, he therefore suggested, is certainly not a substantive change in any policy, but better public relations.

Those who ran the Oregon Health Plan must have been particularly disheartened to learn that even vocal proponents of physician-assisted suicide immediately began criticizing their ill-considered denial letter. To so blatantly juxtapose the reality of healthcare rationing with the “option” of assisted suicide seriously undermines the chief argument advanced publicly by the end-of-life movement, namely, that assisted suicide is merely an individual autonomy play, and is not in any way a cost-saving tool.*

*Preserving the ethical precept of individual autonomy is the basis upon which modern utilitarian ethicists always build their defense of doctors ending the lives of their patients, whether it be by physician-assisted suicide, passive euthanasia, active euthanasia, and even involuntary active euthanasia. DrRich will elaborate on this ethical defense in a future posting.

In other words, whether or not you embrace physician-assisted suicide, everyone seems to agree that offering it up as a covered medical service at the same time you are denying potentially life-prolonging therapy is both insensitive and unseemly.

And so – as a public service to those in the government and the private sector alike who are running healthcare organizations and thus who are (as a matter of course) severely challenged in trying to understand simple human emotions, to patients like Ms. Wagner who may suffer true physical harm by exposure to such institutional callousness, and to the rest of us who simply would appreciate not being confronted so blatantly by the dark abyss that underlies our healthcare system – DrRich offers the Central Authority and private insurers some friendly advice on the right way to sell physician-assisted suicide.

1) Don’t Seem So Anxious.

Sure it’s easy to get excited about physician-assisted suicide. All you need to do is look at your own data. Whether you are trying to make ends meet over at CMS, or running a private health plan, it’s likely that a huge proportion of your spending goes to patients who are in the last year of life. Enticing these end-of-lifers to choose assisted suicide (which you can accomplish in a sufficiently tasteful way for about $100) is such an attractive proposition that it’s indeed become very hard to make yourself appear reasonably circumspect about it. At the very least, if you run an organization like the Oregon Health Plan, where assisted suicide is “available” at no additional cost to patients who choose it, it’s difficult not to push the idea when the opportunity arises. Otherwise how can you be sure the patients will know all their options for end-of-life care?

But doing even that much is a mistake. If you don’t believe that, simply look at the small firestorm the Oregon Health Plan created with their straightforward and helpful “reminder” letter to Ms. Wagner. As a result of the Oregon Health Plan’s inept attempt at informing patients of their options, neighboring states that appeared ready to pass their own assisted-suicide laws immediately had second thoughts about it. It should now be clear even to health plan bureaucrats that seeming overly interested in assisted suicide, or even mentioning the option to patients (at least while simultaneously denying potentially lifesaving therapy) is a very counterproductive idea.

A much more subtle approach is required.

2) Publicly Disavow Any Interest In Assisted Suicide.

Think about Tom Sawyer whitewashing the picket fence. Ole Tom didn’t get all his friends to paint that fence for him by asking for their help, or by overtly trying to sell or cajole them on the idea. Instead, he got them to do the job by pretending he wasn’t the least bit interested in having them do it, by ignoring them altogether, and making himself seem completely absorbed in the delightful task. By the time Tom was done, his friends were begging for a turn, and even giving him wondrous gifts (such as dead cats on a string) to bribe him for a chance to participate.

What you need to do is pretend that encouraging assisted suicide – even if it’s a covered service that patients ought to be made aware of – is the farthest thing from your mind. Instead, you are completely invested in and insistent upon providing full-service end-of-life care, with all the bells and whistles and no holds barred; and – while patients of course have the option to exercise their individual autonomy as they see fit – you take great pride in squeezing every last instant of life out of those elderly, used-up, chronically ill bodies that present themselves in your ICU, no matter what the cost to the patient and family in terms of pain, suffering, humiliation and anguish. It is your mission to stave off death to the bitter end, come what may, and you’re proud of it.

3) Have Somebody Else Push It.

In the meantime, clear the path for agencies and interest groups which are dedicated to the end-of-life movement. There are plenty of them out there. Have them do the selling for you.

Make sure they have access to your patients and patients’ families, especially in the ICU setting. Allow them space for educational displays; provide them some private space where they can talk to interested patients and families; see that hospital social workers are aware of and will enable their activities. In the meantime, make it clear that you do not endorse or encourage their efforts, and indeed wish they would go away, but you are providing such groups with access in your dedicated interest of full transparency, and your commitment to patient choice. If patients choose to avail themselves of such information, you will do nothing to stop them.

4) Make the Advantages To Assisted Suicide Seem Real.

There’s no need for you to talk up the advantages of assisted suicide – let the end-of-life proselytizers do the talking for you. All you have to do is to make their arguments seem accurate. The great part is, that’s just a matter of maintaining business as usual.

The end-of-life zealots will tell patients that assisted suicide is a way of asserting some measure of control over the dying process, of holding on to some level of personal dignity at the very end. So simply make sure your end-of-life care continues robbing patients of any semblance of dignity and control.

They’ll tell patients that assisted suicide will end pain and discomfort and suffering when all hope of recovery is gone. So simply continue with inadequate pain control** and half-hearted comfort measures, and keep the ICU as hectic, loud, scary and impersonal as possible.

**Maintaining inadequate pain control will continue as a matter of course as long as the Central Authority continues sending the DOJ after the occasional pain-management doctor. Whether the target physician is actually engaging in analgesic excesses is unimportant to the goal of making any American doctor afraid of aggressively controlling their patients’ pain, for fear of becoming a target themselves.

The end-of-life proponents will tell the patients themselves that assisted suicide will finally bring comfort to their long-suffering family and friends, whose lives have been “so disrupted by your prolonged illness.” And make sure all those family and friends continue suffering long, by keeping those ICU waiting rooms hot, cramped, noisy, uncomfortable and smelly.

You get the idea. Simply make sure the arguments of the end-of-life proponents have teeth. You’re good at that.

5) Tell Patients to Consult With Their Doctors First.

That’s right. Refer patients to their doctors, their supposed personal advocates, the selfsame individuals you yourself have long since fatally compromised (by grabbing control of their individual professional viability). Assuming you have placed sufficient cost-cutting pressures on doctors, then their willingness to encourage (or at least not discourage) assisted suicide will be substantial. So when patients do consult with their doctors, the doctors will not undermine your subtle efforts, but will become your partners in convincing those approaching end-of-life to just be reasonable.

6) Make Physician-Assisted Suicide Legal, But Not Reimbursable.

You’re going for the Botox model here. You do not want physician-assisted suicide to be merely another hush-hush medical procedure, conducted quietly and almost secretly in a typical doctor’s office, so that people can pretend it doesn’t exist. Rather, you want to establish it as something that’s front and center, something people will want and ask for and go out of their way to seek. You want to encourage doctors to establish inventive business models for assisted suicide,  just as the dermatologists have done with their Botox clinics.

Accomplishing this, of course, will require assisted suicide to be made legal everywhere (and not just in Oregon and a few other progressive states), but at the same time will require you to NOT make it a reimbursable medical service. For once it’s made reimbursable it will become subject to typical Medicare price controls, which thus will keep prices high and limit innovation. And in this once instance, you will not want to limit innovation.

Just think of the possibilities: One envisions physician-assisted suicide becoming established as a “life cycle event” like a wedding or Bar Mitzvah, where the right atmosphere, the right spirituality, and the right tone come together to create an unforgettable, uplifting experience for everyone. Some assisted suicides will take place in a doctor’s office, of course, but why not in a place of worship, a favorite city, a resort, a mountain top, a rocky coast – a casino? Why not allow the prospective decedent to actually hear the eulogies and experience the tearful tributes before actually engaging (ritually) in the Act? Why not partner with the new deathcare industry you will be unleashing (talk about job creation!) to wrap this final “healthcare service” into a comprehensive package along with funeral services, grave sites and headstones, elaborate obituaries, and full coverage on Facebook, Twitter, and UTube?  Why not engage American media to celebrate the event with a new mode of reality programming (one that is sure to garner a massive share of viewers)? Why not, at last, GUARANTEE every American their 15 minutes of fame (even if it’s their last 15 minutes)? Why not convert what is today an antiseptic, impersonal and frightening process into one that makes everybody say, “Yes! That’s the only way to go!”

The beauty is that this sort of model will convert what is today, at best, merely the option for assisted suicide into something that’s expected – a true destination event, a natural part of life. Indeed, not opting for assisted suicide, at a certain point in one’s life, will come to be seen as unusual, unreasonable, greedy and selfish. And when granny begins to spend more time in a doctor’s office or (worse) in a hospital, where frequent visitation is expected and other family inconveniences are generated, some loving grandchild will pat her precious wrinkled hand, and say, “Granny, you know, it’s getting to be about that time. Wouldn’t a last weekend in Vegas be just the thing?”

So, if you play your cards right – passively encouraging the end-of-life movement in its effort to spread the word, while making the alternative (i.e., not committing suicide) as nasty and foul an option as possible, and also while coercing doctors and encouraging families to view assisted suicide as the most advantageous modus exodus one could ever imagine – well, the “right” to assisted suicide will shortly become the expectation and even the duty for assisted suicide.

If you who run government or private health plans will just follow DrRich’s simple program, you will have accomplished all this without seeming crass and self-serving, as you most certainly do each time you send somebody a letter like the one you sent the unfortunate Ms. Wagner.

3 Responses to “How to Sell Assisted Suicide”

  1. Mitch says:

    For further ideas, please see the cheesy 70s movie “Logan’s Run”; alternatively, read the book of the same name as it’s far more introspective.

    I am starting my training in Pulm/Critical Care soon; I suspect that it will be the ethical dilemma above that will eventually force me from practice. I don’t know how common this is, but I am already planning for a second career once I pay off my school debt. Carpentry, anyone?

  2. The movie Soylent Green presents a world where suicide is voluntary, but the participant gets to eat and drink great food (otherwise unobtainable in a proletarian hell) and see a movie about the beautiful, natural world that has disappeared.

    The dead are used as a protein rich supplement in the manufactured food wafers Soylent Green. The ultimate recycling.

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