Advance directives are not a proxy for euthanasia

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Sherry Parrish
Sherry Parrish

Despite the fact that Congress is in recess, the next month may prove to be the most critical time in the debate over healthcare reform. Members of Congress are now home talking to their constituents about the different proposals for providing quality, affordable health care to as many Americans as possible. And, players on all sides of the issue are making their case through the media. The stakes of this debate are enormous, and whichever side you're on, the issue should be decided by an informed discussion of the facts.

Unfortunately, it seems too many are using this time to mislead average Americans for political gain. The latest of these untruths was so appalling that I wanted to personally set the record straight. It has to do with end-of-life-care and healthcare decision making—among the most gut-wrenching and emotional decisions individuals and families ever have to make. As a social worker with 32 years of experience in the field of health services and senior care, the discussion of end-of-life care is critical to the long-term satisfaction and happiness of many individuals and I have personally grown to appreciate its high value.

Included in the House healthcare reform bill (H.R. 3200) is a provision that would provide Medicare coverage for end-of-life consultations by physicians. Some have latched onto this provision with the intent to use it as scare tactic to dissuade people from supporting the bill. While there are always going to be interest groups stooping to new lows to thwart any attempts at reform, some of the most respected and powerful leaders on Capitol Hill are getting in on the act describing this provision as a gateway to "euthanasia, mercy-killing and physician-assisted suicide." At first blush, it seems such an outrageous claim that one might consider not taking it seriously. But there is nothing I take more seriously than the care and well-being of America's seniors, and these types of scare tactics should not be taken lightly by anyone.

Advance care planning and advance directives such as living wills or designating a health care agent can ensure that an individual's wishes are followed even in a situation where he or she are no longer able to make decisions for themselves. In fact, advanced directives may indicate an individual's preference to receive more care rather than less care. They are in no way a proxy for euthanasia; rather advanced directives preserve your right of self-determination even in the face of incapacity due to illness or injury. The physicians who care for our seniors spend time with each patient to discuss options. This gives patients and family members information upon which to make good decisions. Don't we all want that?  In my view, advanced care planning is an essential component of health care for every adult, not just seniors. Making appropriate plans with family and your medical providers is NOT a sentence to the death squad. 

The future of America's healthcare system should be the subject of vigorous debate, but that debate should not include preying upon people's most basic fears. While those opposed to reform have every right to voice their opposition, their goal should not be achieved at the expense of those Americans who have put so much into making America the country it is today.

Sherry Parrish is director of resident life at Charlestown, a retirement community in Catonsville, MD. She also is a career social worker, a regular contributor to  the "Today" show and "Good Morning America" as well as host of "What's Next" on Retirement Living TV.

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