The persistence of the death panels myth

07/29/2010 10:57 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Washington Post reports on a new Kaiser poll showing that the "death panel" myth that plagued debate (PDF) over health care reform is still a significant problem:

The poll found that misconceptions about the legislation persist, including the "death panel" falsehood propagated by opponents of the legislation.

"A year after the town meeting wars of last summer, a striking 36% of seniors said that the law 'allowed a government panel to make decisions about end of life care for people on Medicare', and another 17% said they didn't know," Kaiser Family Foundation chief executive Drew Altman wrote.

Here's the question Kaiser asked:

I'm going to read you a list of specific ways the new health reform law may or may not impact Medicare. For each, please tell me if you think it is something the law does or does not do... Would you say the law does or does not allow a government panel to make decisions about end‐of‐life care for people on Medicare?

The question references the charge, made originally by Sarah Palin, that the health care reform bill would create a "death panel" in which bureaucrats decide whether seniors are "worthy of health care." However, even experts who opposed the plan said the charges were false. While the health care reform law does create an independent board that will make proposals to Congress to restrain Medicare costs, the legislation specifically states that "The proposal shall not include any recommendation to ration health care... or otherwise restrict benefits" (as Media Matters points out). Moreover, these would be systemwide policy changes for Medicare, not specific decisions about end-of-life care for individual patients as Palin suggested.

Here are the crosstabs from the poll in graphical form -- it turns out that seniors have somewhat more accurate perceptions than those under 65:


Among the population as a whole, 41% said they believed the law does allow a government panel to make decisions about end‐of‐life care for people on Medicare and an additional 16% said they didn't know. The corresponding figures were 43% and 16% for those under 65 and 36% and 17% for those who are 65 years or older.

As expected, motivated reasoning appears to play an important role in the persistence of the misperception. Kaiser found that "those [seniors] with an unfavorable view are ... more likely to incorrectly think the law includes cuts in benefits or that it allows a government panel to make end‐of‐life care decisions." 55% of seniors with an unfavorable view of the law believed in the death panel myth, while only 17% of those with a favorable view did so.

For more analysis of the development of the death panel myth and the reasons it is so difficult to correct, see my article "Why the 'Death Panel' Myth Wouldn't Die: Misinformation in the Health Care Reform Debate (PDF) from a recent issue of The Forum.