Obama says ‘death panels’ aren’t on his healthcare overhaul agenda

President Obama responded to the crowd during a 45-minute question-and-answer period.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Addressing one of the more volatile complaints about healthcare reform that he is proposing, President Obama said today Tuesday that he doesn’t want to set up government “death panels” that decide which Americans get health services and which don’t.

Obama, speaking at a town hall-style meeting here this afternoon, also countered more serious critiques of his initiative, at one point calling for questions from “skeptical and suspicious” members of the audience and eliciting queries about whether a public health plan will give government too big a role in administering care.

“Right now, insurance companies are rationing care,” Obama told the crowd at Portsmouth High School. “They’re telling you, ‘You can have this procedure but you can’t have that procedure.’” “I want everybody to understand,” he said, “the status quo is not working for you.”

The pitch came during a 45-minute question-and-answer period at a meeting that was smooth and civil -- in contrast with the shouting matches that have broken out recently at meetings hosted by Democratic members of Congress home in their districts during their summer recess.

White House officials say they assembled the crowd of 1,800 by the same process they always use. They sent out advisories to the local media last week, directing people to the White House website to sign up for tickets. The host school and state and local officials also got a few tickets to distribute.

A few questioners raised concerns about the president’s plans, in keeping with political tradition in New Hampshire, where town halls are a fixture of community life. And lining the main drive to the town hall site were dozens upon dozens of demonstrators, many calling for healthcare reform while others shouted criticism of the Democrats’ initiative.

One T-shirt embellished the rising-sun emblem of the Obama presidential campaign to include a communist hammer-and-sickle symbol, with the word “Obamacare” emblazoned beneath it. “Obama lies, Grandma dies,” read a sign held by one young girl, while another read, “No to government health care.”

But the president’s motorcade did not follow that route, according to people who were in it, and Obama saw mainly supporters waving signs as he approached the high school.

And inside the high school’s gymnasium, with a marching band seated on the bleachers, Obama stood before a mostly supportive crowd.

At one point, he laughed off a comment by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who accused the president of wanting to set up “death boards” that would decide who lives and dies. None of the current bills mention a panel remotely fitting the description.

“I guess this arose out of a provision in one of the House bills that allowed Medicare to reimburse people for consultations about end-of-life care, setting up living wills,” Obama said. “Somehow it’s gotten spun into this idea of death panels. Um, I am not in favor of that. I want to clear the air.”

But Obama also addressed a more fundamental and arguable point, that expanding coverage to nearly 40 million more Americans would require someone to ration care.

Ben Hershenson, a retired pharmacy professor who was in the audience, said he doesn’t disagree with the president’s argument that insurance companies do some of that now. He just thinks it will get worse with a universal plan that covers so many more people.

“When he says, ‘Let’s eliminate waste,’ I say, ‘Define waste,'" said Hershenson, who asked the president about rationing during the meeting. “I honestly believe there will be rationing beyond what we currently have.”

Some in the crowd said they weren’t yet supporters of the Democrats’ healthcare plans.Still, several of those interviewed said they want some kind of healthcare overhaul, and soon.Mary Thoreson, a May college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and philosophy, said she worries about how health insurers -- and potential employers -- will treat her chronic heart condition. When she was a child, she said, a supervisor at her father’s place of business recommended firing him because of the high cost of her heart surgeries. He kept his job because he worked for a relative, she said. But she doesn’t have that option now, and her coverage by her parents’ insurer expires soon because she has graduated.

“Where am I going to work with family?” she asked.