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Utah health experts trying to clear up end-of-life counseling controversy



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SALT LAKE CITY -- In the debate over health care reform, it seems the issue of end-of-life counseling has been twisted and manipulated.

Critics blast it as a government takeover of health care, where whether someone lives or dies depends solely on the bottom line. The most attention-grabbing headlines have included words like "death panels" and "pulling the plug on grandma."

A new survey by Gallup shows 20 percent of people living in Western states, including Utah, believe these are actually part of President Obama's health reform plan. They come from a portion of a bill that would have Medicare reimburse doctors for time spent discussing end-of-life care options with patients.

"It's unfortunate that it's being smeared as death panels, because it really has nothing to do with that," said hospitalist Dr. Dustin Armstrong.

Armstrong cares for patients with acute and unstable medical conditions. Many have already discussed their end-of-life wishes, including if they want to be resuscitated, want feeding tubes or to be put on a ventilator.

If they haven't made those decisions, Armstrong says the hospital can often be the worst place at the worst time, especially when the patient is so ill he or she isn't capable of communicating.

"I've actually seen families really come apart trying to sort out what's best for their loved one," Armstrong said.

A recent AARP survey revealed that 89 percent of seniors believe it's important to get answers about end-of-life care, but only 17 percent had discussed it with their doctor.

"Some people are in states of denial and do not want to have that conversation," explained Kathleen Fallon, assistant administrator with St. Joseph Villa.

St. Joseph Villa, a senior center and long-term nursing facility in Salt Lake, has programs to help patients through the decision-making process. They focus on both spiritual and nursing aspects.

While they don't agree with how the issue of end-of-life counseling is being portrayed, administrators at St. Joseph Villa say it's not completely negative.

"I certainly think having conversations about end-of-life is advantageous and not a bad thing," Fallon said.

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Sarah Dallof

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