The remarkable staying power of "death panels"

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Sarah Palin's phrase "death panels" derailed proposed provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to pay physicians for end-of-life discussions with patients, a policy designed to make dying more humane, something all Americans desire. Even now, "death panels" has truth-value for approximately half of Americans and is used to paint ACA components as threatening to "pull the plug on Grandma." How can this be? To some, the death panels claim is simply a lie, an improvised explosive device hurled against any ACA provision. To others, the phrase's power stems from the public's lack of a common vocabulary to discuss end-of-life care. "Death panels," however, taps into many Americans' fear of government involvement, that government's purchasing end-of-life discussions as commodities necessitates accountability and cost control. Standardization and reduction of humanity follows, something Americans already experience routinely in their health care system. Expert jargon, compelling among experts themselves, doesn't evoke people's images of chats with Marcus Welby. The jargon is unintelligible, off-putting. When that jargon enters the nonjargonized world, it mixes with common fears, extant experience of dehumanization and reduction, and awareness that someone's plug is getting pulled all the time. "Death panels" cannot be dismissed as delusional, but neither can it help fulfill Americans' aspirations for a humane last voyage.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1087-1101
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Health Politics, Policy and Law
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Health Policy


  • "Death panels"
  • Advance care planning
  • Affordable Care Act provisions
  • End-of-life discussions


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