The Obama administration, reversing course, will revise a Medicare regulation to delete references to end-of-life planning as part of the annual physical examinations covered under the new health care law, administration officials said Tuesday.
The move is an abrupt shift, coming just days after the new policy took effect on Jan. 1.
Many doctors and providers of hospice care had praised the regulation, which listed “advance care planning” as one of the services that could be offered in the “annual wellness visit” for Medicare beneficiaries.
While administration officials cited procedural reasons for changing the rule, it was clear that political concerns were also a factor. The renewed debate over advance care planning threatened to become a distraction to administration officials who were gearing up to defend the health law against attack by the new Republican majority in the House.
Although the health care bill signed into law in March did not mention end-of-life planning, the topic was included in a huge Medicare regulation setting payment rates for thousands of physician services. The final regulation was published in the Federal Register in late November. The proposed rule, published for public comment in July, did not include advance care planning.
An administration official, authorized by the White House to explain the mix-up, said Tuesday, “We realize that this should have been included in the proposed rule, so more people could have commented on it specifically.”
“We will amend the regulation to take out voluntary advance care planning,” the official said. “This should not affect beneficiaries’ ability to have these voluntary conversations with their doctors.”
The November regulation was issued by Dr. Donald M. Berwick, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and a longtime advocate for better end-of-life care. White House officials who work on health care apparently did not focus on the part of the rule that dealt with advance care planning.
The decision to drop the reference to end-of-life care upset some officials at the Department of Health and Human Services, who said the administration ought to promote discussions of such care. Such discussions help ensure that patients get the care they want, the officials said.
During debate on the legislation, Democrats dropped a somewhat similar proposal to encourage end-of-life planning after it touched off a political storm. Republicans said inaccurately that the House version of the bill allowed a government panel to make decisions about end-of-life care for people on Medicare.
Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate, said in the summer of 2009 that “Obama’s death panel” would decide who was worthy of health care. Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader who is to become speaker on Wednesday, said the provision could be a step “down a treacherous path toward government-encouraged euthanasia.”
The health care bill passed by the House in 2009 allowed Medicare to pay doctors for discussions of end-of-life care, including advance directives, in which patients can indicate whether they want to forgo or receive aggressive life-sustaining treatment.
The provision for advance care planning was not included in the final health care overhaul signed into law by President Obama. Health policy experts assumed that the proposal had been set aside — until a similar idea showed up in the final Medicare regulation in November.