Distinction without a difference? Guidance from the NCBC

Last month the National Catholic Bioethics Center posted an article that was meant to guide Catholic clinicians on what to do when a patient or proxy or government requests treatment that the clinician considers to be morally wrong [“Transfer of Care vs. Referral: A Crucial Moral Distinction”]

The subject is important and timely, and I looked forward to reading the piece, but unfortunately it misses the mark when it comes to issues where withholding/withdrawing treatment and palliative care would be involved. Continue reading “Distinction without a difference? Guidance from the NCBC”

C-TAC Hosts DC Conference

The C-TAC website. (No link; they don’t need the additional traffic.)

Last Friday’s March for Life was a reminder that many Americans understand a fact that is lost to those inside the Beltway:  that protection of human life, grounded in Judeo-Christian principles, has been the foundation of American civil society for over two centuries.  By way of contrast, tomorrow an organization called C-TAC, run by right-to-die activists, will begin a two-day conference uniting pragmatic ethicists, political progressives, consumerists and crony capitalists at, appropriately, the National Academies of Science.

C-TAC (the Coalition to Transform Advanced Care) was founded by social marketer Bill Novelli; death-with-dignity activist Myra Christopher of the Center for Practical Bioethics (CPB; formerly known as Midwest Bioethics Center); and former Evan Bayh adviser Tom Koutsoumpas, now at ML Strategies.  The American Bar Association, while not a coalition member, had a hand in development of C-TAC through Charles Sabatino, who is director of ABA’s Commission on Law and Aging.

C-TAC co-founder Myra Christopher of the Center for Practical Bioethics

Bill Novelli is former AARP president, and is also a co-founder of the huge public relations firm Porter Novelli – the firm that made the news last year when it won a $20 million contract from HHS to promote Obamacare. (Porter Novelli handles C-TAC’s press releases.)

Myra Christopher’s claim to fame is that she helped attorney William Colby argue for the death of Nancy Cruzan, and later advised Senators Danforth and Moynihan in crafting the Patient Self-Determination Act.

As Partnership for Caring transitioned to Last Acts Partnership, Tom Koutsoumpas moved to Chairman and Rev. Jeremiah Wright was added to the board of directors. (Website has been removed; this is the web page as it appeared archived in 2005. IRS Form 990 confirms they were both on the board.)

Tom Koutsoumpas was on the board of Partnership for Caring, and appeared on the website as chairman in 2004 as the organization transitioned to Last Acts Partnership and added Rev. Jeremiah Wright to the board.  (Partnership for Caring had been known as Choice in Dying in the late 1990s; before that, it was known as the Society for the Right to Die.)

All of these founding members happen to have been key players in the 1990s death-and-dying project called Last Acts – a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation project that collaborated with George Soros’s Open Society Institute, until Not Dead Yet raised protests, and funding was cut shortly thereafter.   In fact, C-TAC bears a striking resemblance to Last Acts.

Two years ago a two-day celebration of “the Legacy of Nancy Cruzan” brought together a number of people who would go on to launch C-TAC

C-TAC operated “largely under the radar” for about a year (as reported by one liberal blogger in-the-know).  By September 2011 their strategic plan included “SWAT Teams” to “respond to questions from the media as well as any attacks”  It is not clear whether this was in preparation for a specific “attack,” or whether they were just paranoid in general.  The worry about “questions from the media” was clearly a ruse, because Christopher has a long history of using the media to foist her propaganda on the public.  In 2000, for example, she and Partnership for Caring collaborated with Bill Moyers on a public television series, by which they were able to generate news stories, magazine articles, photo ops with members of Congress, and establish a community organizing network.  They can always count on newspapers to carry their message.  Susan Tolle –  developer of POLST, a major contributor to Oregon’s guidebook to the Death with Dignity Act, and a board member on one of Christopher’s projects – boasted in a CPB publication:

“Our use of data with the news media often precedes efforts to bring about change in other settings. . . .  If data have not been presented effectively to a wider audience, we are unlikely to be of tremendous influence to legislative bodies. . . . There is no doubt that The Oregonian has made a huge difference.”

What is C-TAC’s objective?  According to Diana Mason, WBAI radio host and president of the American Academy of Nursing, “C-TAC was formed to reframe the discussion” in response to what she termed “fear-mongering” and “’death panel’ rhetoric.”  Blogging at Disruptive Women in Health Care, Mason reported that C-TAC was ready to “take back the conversations with the public about choices in dying.”

One page from C-TAC’s Strategic Plan, complete with “SWAT Teams.”
[click image to enlarge]
“Choices in dying” is one part of the agenda, but C-TAC’s objective is much broader.  For one, they plan on “changing the health care delivery structure.” They are working with the new Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation (CMMI) at HHS; one of their board members just won $13 million in taxpayer money from CMMI to test a new intervention.

C-TAC likes to talk a lot about honoring a person’s values, but clearly they are in the business of shaping the public’s values and behaviors.  One of the stated goals in their Strategic Plan is (emphasis added)

“Improve the social, policy and health system environment and norms for quality advanced illness care.”

To accomplish that goal, C-TAC plans to

 1. Coordinate public engagement, policy advocacy, clinical model development, and provider education/support to optimize timing, sequence, and priorities to achieve greatest impact.

2. Utilize mass and social media and policy channels to create positive change in normative and expected behaviors regarding advanced illness”

[emphasis added]

Putting aside their lack of a solid definition for the term “advanced illness,” the problem here is that C-TAC clearly intends to impose its own values on the public in terms of defining “quality,” “positive change” and “normative and expected behaviors.”  This is a little troubling coming from an organization whose founders can’t even get it right when it comes to what “ordinary care” means (hint:  nutrition and hydration).

Get the picture? A C-TAC presentation showing that frail, elderly patients are a “cost to society.”
[click to enlarge]
Nor do the C-TAC founders understand the meaning of the word “person.”  According to their definition, a person ceases to be a person when he or she loses cognitive capability – as a number of them would argue in the cases of Nancy Cruzan, Hugh Finn, Robert Wendland, Terri Schiavo, and countless others.  So it is not surprising to learn that two years ago a two-day celebration of “the Legacy of Nancy Cruzan” served both as a reunion for old Partnership for Caring alumni, and a convening of agents who would go on to launch C-TAC.

It would be nice if these bioethicists, statists, and crony capitalists would not use taxpayer dollars to impose their values and agenda on the public, but to obtain government funding is one of their objectives.  And of course, if all goes as planned, with the government money will come regulations and guidelines that will further operationalize their “better-off-dead” values and pragmatic ethics.  Let’s hope they fail.

POLST: “self-determination” or imposed death?

“POLST” is short for “Physician’s Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment.” It is a so-called “advance care planning” document; a page or two of medical instructions designed to follow a patient from one setting to another. In Oregon the form is still called POLST, but in other states it has taken on a variety of names such as POST, MOLST, or MOST.  It was devised for sick and elderly people, and lists treatments they might wish to forgo.  Any patient in a nursing home or a patient with an “advanced illness” would qualify.  Emergency teams and first responders are trained to use POLST.  When the patient’s condition worsens, or when the patient is transferred to a new location, the POLST form is reviewed and the patient is asked again whether he/she really wants antibiotics, “artificial” hydration/nutrition, and so forth.  The check marks on the page are instantly transformed into “physician’s orders” or “medical orders.”

By design or not, POLST is also an effective cost containment device.  Earlier this year POLST’s designers at the OHSU Center for Ethics in Health Care issued a Statement on the Fiscal Impact of the POLST Paradigm, maintaining that (emphasis added):  “an ideal health care system would honor individual preferences while allocating health care resources efficiently.”  The report went on to demonstrate that in numerous studies POLST increased efficiency by preventing “expensive hospitalizations.” [1]

Autonomous?  Think coached.

The bioethicists who devised the POLST Paradigm hyped the documents’ use as tools for dignity and autonomy. [2] The documents do leave the door wide open to an “autonomous” decision to hasten death.  This is particularly true in Oregon and Washington where “comfort care” includes assisted suicide.

However, assisted suicide is only one concern.  POLST is more apt to facilitate imposed death.

POLST owes its existence more to Oregon’s experiment with health care rationing than it does to the state’s assisted suicide experiment.  In fact, POLST grew out of an effort in the late 1980s by Portland area hospital ethics committees (not patients) who were considering how to limit “futile treatments.”  Eventually ethicists came up with a document that would discourage providers and patients from requesting treatments that were “not medically indicated” – i.e., treatments not considered appropriate by a panel of “experts.”[3]

Shortly after Oregon’s legalization of assisted suicide in 1994, the document was given a name that tested well in focus groups, emphasizing that these were orders “for life-sustaining treatment.” The document was fine-tuned under the direction of an ethicist mentored by Mark Siegler of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago (where Valerie Jarrett’s father was senior scholar).  To assist in testing and implementing the document, the bioethicists engaged the help of Oregon Health Decisions — a group of community organizers and left-leaning activists who had formed Oregon’s “citizen parliaments” that created Oregon’s infamous rationing lists.

Who funded it?

Perhaps it is no surprise that George Soros’s Project on Death in America was one of the earliest funders of the POLST venture at OHSU.  Among other funders were the Greenwall Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Nathan Cummings Foundation.  At the time, the Cummings Foundation was also funding Ezekiel and Linda Emanuel for a study of caregivers’ burdens.  The Greenwall Foundation was known for its funding of bioethicists who favored “death with dignity.”  Later, in 2008, Greenwall would also grant $40,000 toward a study on how to determine which Alzheimer’s patients should be allowed to vote. Recipient of the grant was Charles Sabatino – director of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Law and Aging, and POLST activist.

Following is a sketch of what POLST is and is not:

POLST is not the traditional “legal transaction”

  • Although a POLST form looks like a contract, usually displaying signatures of patient and provider, it is not a traditional legal transaction.  Charles Sabatino says POLST reflects a “paradigm shift from [the traditional] legal transactional model to a communications model.”[4]
  • POLST does not require a physician’s signature; nor does it require the signature of the patient or proxy.  The POLST Paradigm Task Force “recommends” that POLST require a patient/proxy signature, but the signature is definitely optional, depending upon regional requirements.[5]

More like “a process”

  • POLST is not so much a document as it is “a process.” One advisor to the Senate HELP committee made the pitch for POLST last summer:  “The process of completing a POLST form is [not only] a values clarification process, but one that results in specific and explicit medical orders” [6]
  • “The process” is repetitive and often conducted when the patient and proxy are under duress, as the patient’s condition changes.  In many states, the form has multiple lines for multiple interviews. “The process of goal clarification requires intense, time-consuming, face-to-face conversations with patients and/or family members” triggered by what the providers perceive should be “realistic options” for care.[7]
  • “The process” can be initiated by someone other than a physician, and that is usually the case.  According to POLST advocates, “nurses, social workers, admissions coordinators, and nursing home administrators are typically the front-line implementers of POLST.  They facilitate POLST discussions at the time of admission (or sometime later), record patient preferences, and then refer the form to the physician for signature.”[8] This means that on one day a Catholic physician might counsel his patient to request hydration, only to find that, on the next day, an admissions coordinator or social worker reviewed the orders with the patient (or proxy) to “clarify” away the previous day’s decision.

What triggers “the process”?

  • The definition of an eligible candidate varies widely.  A recent National POLST Paradigm report suggested POLST is triggered by “advanced illness.”
  • In some states, health care professionals are trained to identify prospects by asking themselves the question, “would you be surprised to see this person dead in a year?” (a prompt that was devised by a physician at Franciscan Health System West — one of the health systems that participated in Donald Berwick’s “Improving Care at the End of Life Collaborative ).

Are the documents legal in every state?

  • The documents’ legal status vary dramatically from state to state.[9] In Oregon, for example, POLST couldn’t move forward without passage of liberalized surrogacy laws.  Even after that, the task force decided to bypass the legislature to gain full implementation, and so pushed for a liberalized rule from the Oregon Board of Medical Examiners.  The new rule provided “both a mandate and a legal shield” for first responders, who would be key to implementing POLST.[10] Susan Tolle, MD, of the POLST Paradigm Task Force warned “the POLST form functions within the context of Oregon’s liberal advance directives law and would require modification for use in some other states (for example, those without surrogacy provisions)”[11]In Washington State, the advance directives statute had prohibited  surrogate decision-makers from making Do-Not-Resuscitate (DNR) decisions for a patient. With pilot-testing already in progress, POLST activists stepped in and pressured the state’s Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to reinterpret the statute.  With the help of local media and “frightening articles in major media,” DSHS revised their interpretation and approved POLST.[12]

 

  • Though the applicable laws and regulations vary dramatically from one state to the next on issues such as surrogacy, assisted suicide, scope of practice for first responders, POLST activists are working toward making the documents “fully transportable,” i.e., forcing states to honor out-of-state documents.

Goal-oriented process.  Whose goal?

The problem with POLST is not that it allows patients to hasten their own death.  The problem is that POLST facilitates imposed death.  It creates an illusion of “self-determination” while fostering consensus ethics.  It is vague as a legal document, and the iterative, goal-oriented process is designed to reduce the use of what some ethicists call “inappropriate” treatments, but what others may call ordinary and life-enhancing.  The documents may be used by a wide range of health care workers, many of whom do not know the patient personally.  In short, the POLST process rigs the system in favor of pressuring the patient and family.

Although not writing about POLST specifically, bioethicist Wesley J. Smith has illustrated the effect of this sort of process:

I hear often from people who believe they or their aged/ill/disabled loved ones are being pressured into refusing treatment–usually not by being brow beaten or yelled at–but from a constant, drip, drip, drip of conversation after conversation after conversation, which only end when the patient agrees to what the doctor or ethics committee want.  In this phenomenon of the never-ending-conversation, people often perceive an attempt to wear them down by sheer exhaustion into acquiescing.[13]

Smith’s “drip, drip, drip” sums up the POLST process rather well.


[1] The National POLST Paradigm Task Force., Statement on the Fiscal Impact of the POLST Paradigm (Portland, OR: Center for Ethics in Health Care, Oregon Health & Science University, 2010).

[2] Lewis-Husk, Lee, and Michael J. Garland. The First Decade, ed. Susan W. Tolle and Gary T. Chiodo. Portland, OR: The Center for Ethics in Health Care, Oregon Health Sciences University, 1999.  Also:  Myra J. Christopher and Jeri Spann, “Oregon Health Decisions:  Lighting the Way to Common Ground,” State Initiatives in End-of-Life Care, October, 1998.

[3] Patrick M. Dunn and others, “A Method to Communicate Patient Preferences About Medically Indicated Life-Sustaining Treatment in the out-of-Hospital Setting,” J Am Geriatr Soc 44, no. 7 (1996).

[4] Charles Sabatino and Myra J. Christopher, “Advance Planning:  From a Transactional Model to a Communications Approach (Slide Presentation),” in The Changing Face of Health Decisions (American Bar Association, 2008).

[5] Oregon POLST Task Force, “Guidance for Oregon’s Health Care Professionals,”  (Portland, OR: Center for Ethics in Health Care at Oregon Health & Science University, 2009).

[6] Diane E. Meier and Larry Beresford, “POLST Offers Next Stage in Honoring Patient Preferences,” J Palliat Med 12, no. 4 (2009).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Myra J. Christopher and Jeri Spann, “Implementing End-of-Life Treatment Preferences across Clinical Settings,” State Initiatives in End-of-Life Care, April 1999.

[9] Susan E. Hickman and others, “The POLST (Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment) Paradigm to Improve End-of-Life Care: Potential State Legal Barriers to Implementation,” J. Law Med. Ethics 36, no. 1 (2008).

[10] Christopher and Spann, “Implementing End-of-Life Treatment Preferences across Clinical Settings.”

[11] Susan W. Tolle, “Care of the Dying: Clinical and Financial Lessons from the Oregon Experience,” Ann Intern Med 128, no. 7 (1998).

[12] Judy L. Meyers and Rose Mary Volbrecht, “The Story of the POLST Form: How a Grassroots Effort Can Make a Difference in End-of-Life Care,” DNA Reporter (Delaware Nurses Association) 30, no. 2 (2005).

[13] Wesley J. Smith, “”Obamacare: Column Illustrates the Potential for ‘Never Ending Conversation’ End of Life Counseling Pressure,” in Second Hand Smoke (https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/secondhandsmoke/2010/04/04/obamacare-column-illustrates-the-potential-for-never-ending-conversation-end-of-life-counseling-pressure/, 2010).