A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Neurological ‘Death Panels’?


Q: Does Obama plan to deny emergency brain surgery for patients over 70?

A: No. A man claiming on a radio talk show to be a brain surgeon lied about that, and about a meeting of two associations of neurological surgeons, those associations say.

FULL ANSWER

Several readers have asked us about a YouTube clip of comments made by a caller to The Mark Levin Show, a nationally syndicated conservative radio talk show, on Nov. 22, 2011. The caller, who is identified only as “Jeff” from Chicago on the show, says that he is a brain surgeon and that the Department of Health and Human Services had issued a document saying patients over age 70 should receive “comfort care,” instead of neurological surgery. He says this is “absolutely” like the “death panels” that Sarah Palin had claimed would be part of the federal health care law.

Jeff (the caller): Basically, what the document stated was, if you’re over 70 and you’d come into an emergency room and you’re on government-supported health care that you get comfort care.

Levin: What a minute. … What document and … what’s the source for this?

Jeff: This is the Obama’s new health care plan for advanced neurosurgical care.

Levin: And who issued this, HHS?

Jeff: Yes, and basically they don’t call them patients, they call them units. And instead of, they call it ethics panels or ethics committees would get together and meet and decide where the money would go for hospitals. And basically for patients over 70 years of age that advanced neurosurgical care was not generally indicated.

Levin: So, it’s generally going to be denied?

Jeff: Yes, absolutely.

“Jeff” said that this document wasn’t public and that he had discussed it in Washington, D.C., at a seminar of the AANS and CNS — that’s the American Association of Neurological Surgeons and the Congress of Neurological Surgeons.

But the AANS and CNS issued a statement on Nov. 28, and updated it on Jan. 3, saying they aren’t aware of any such federal document, and there was no session discussing anything of the sort at the recent CNS meeting. The updated statement said the caller “is not actually a neurosurgeon.”

AANS and CNS statement: The AANS and CNS are unaware of any federal government document directing that advanced neurosurgery for patients over 70 years of age will not be indicated and only supportive care treatment will be provided. Furthermore, in conducting our own due diligence, the caller who identified himself as a brain surgeon is not actually a neurosurgeon, nor was there any session at the recent Congress of Neurological Surgeons’ scientific meeting in Washington, DC at which a purported government document calling for the rationing of neurosurgical care was discussed.

Alison Dye, a spokeswoman for the groups, told us that they know who the caller is and that he is not a brain surgeon or a neurosurgeon. “One of our neurosurgeons knows who he is, and they had a conversation,” she said. AANS/CNS declined to give the full name of “Jeff,” the caller, saying that he had asked the groups not to identify him. Dye did say he was in the medical field but was not registered at a recent CNS meeting in Washington, D.C., since he isn’t a neurosurgeon and isn’t part of the organization.

She agreed to pass along a message to both “Jeff” and the neurosurgeon who knows him, telling them that we would like to speak with them. We will update this article if we get a response from either person.

We also contacted the Department of Health and Human Services. Erin Shields, director of communications for health care, told us: “These false claims were simply made up by an anonymous call to a radio station. No such document exists and no such presentation took place. And, the American Association of Neurological Surgeons and the Congress of Neurological Surgeons have both gone on the record to denounce these false rumors as well.”

After Levin ended his conservation with “Jeff,” he told another caller that the supposed brain surgeon “was vetted by us. We know he is who he said he is.”

We have called and emailed the producer of the show to ask for more information about this person. We will update this article if we receive a response.

The AANS and CNS repeatedly have asked the show to remove that episode of the podcast from the website, but so far, that has not happened. The groups said: “Neurosurgeons are committed to providing timely, compassionate, and state of the art treatment for all patients — regardless of age — who have neurosurgical conditions. As such, we have requested numerous times that this podcast be removed from Mark Levin’s website as it portrays inaccurate information which could potentially be harmful to the patients that we serve.”

When Levin asked, “So Sarah Palin was right, we’re going to have these death panels?,” “Jeff” responded, “Oh, absolutely.” He then made a reference to Nazi Germany, saying: “I’m German by heritage, and I’ve read ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,’ and basically … they don’t call them patients, they call them units, and if you’re a unit above a certain age, you get comfort care instead of advanced neurosurgical intervention.”

He also talked about being in training for 10 years and doing surgery on patients at 2 in the morning. He claimed one of his former partners was “head of the Congress of Neurosurgeons.”

Again, the CNS says he’s not part of that group and not a neurosurgeon. We asked if there was any document about neurosurgery and patients over 70 that this caller could be exaggerating or misconstruing, but the spokeswoman told us the neurological groups have no idea what “Jeff” is talking about.

— Lori Robertson

Sources

YouTube.com. Neurosurgeon calls Mark Levin about Obamacare. 23 Nov 2011.

American Association of Neurological Surgeons and the Congress of Neurological Surgeons. Press release. 3 Jan 2012.

The Mark Levin Show. Podcast. 22 Nov 2011.

Dye, Alison, spokeswoman, American Association of Neurological Surgeons/Congress of Neurological Surgeons. Phone interview with FactCheck.org. 4 Jan 2012.

Shields, Erin, director of communications for health care, Department of Health and Human Services. Email to FactCheck.org. 5 Jan 2012.