On Friday, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed to find that two of my FB friends, both atheists, had shared a link from Washington Times referring to a terminally ill patient’s feud with her insurance agency. The story purported that Stephanie Packer from California was prescribed a chemotherapy drug by her doctor and was refused coverage by her insurance company. Instead, the insurance company “offered to pay for her to kill herself.”
This is disturbing on many fronts, the first of which being that two secular activists in my FB circles have shared a story from a conservative propaganda sheet like the Washington Times. Immediately, my defenses were up as I clicked the link and read the story. Next, I wanted to find out if this really happened, so I spent about 30 seconds googling it. My unsurprising verdict: not exactly.
The first clue there’s an issue with this story is that only right-wing propaganda sites and religious news outlets have covered it. Why did they cover it? Because they’re decidedly anti-assisted suicide, mostly due to religious convictions dealing with end of life, and this story plays right into their wheelhouse. In the Washington Times piece, the author tries to convey that the new assisted suicide laws being passed in several states “create an incentive for insurance companies to deny terminally ill patients coverage.”
I’ve read all of the articles I could find on this case and patched together what appears to be the truth, while cutting out the editorializing, grandstanding, and assumptions. Here’s what seems to have happened here:
Stephanie Packer has been diagnosed with a terminal form of scleroderma and has been on chemotherapy for some time, covered by her insurance. Somewhere along the line, her doctor wanted to change her medication to something they felt would be “less toxic.” After about 5 months of discussion with her insurance company, Packer says they verbally approved her change in medication. Some time after that, (and coincidentally soon after the assisted suicide law was passed in CA) she received a letter from her insurer stating the new medication would not be covered. Packer then called her insurance company to find out why it wasn’t covered, and in none of the articles, Packer actually tells us why. You’d think that information would be useful in a news article about coverage denial. Instead, while on the phone with her insurer, she asked them if they cover the assisted suicide drugs and they said yes. The insurance company did not “offer to pay for her to kill herself.”
Upon doing some more research, we find that Stephanie Packer has been an anti-assisted suicide activist since at least 2015, when she advocated against proposed California law legalizing it. What a coincidence that her insurance company would “offer to pay for her to kill herself.” Even back then she felt that “pressure to end one’s life could become a dangerous norm, especially in a world defined by high-cost medical care.” And then it happened to her, just as she predicted. Crazy, right?
Back in 2015, Packer is quoted as saying, “God put us here on earth and only God can take us away and he has a master plan for us and if suffering is part of that plan, which it seems to be, then so be it… Death can be beautiful and peaceful. It’s a natural process that should be allowed to happen on its own.” Well that’s fine for you, Stephanie, but not everyone shares your belief system or your desire to take the freedom of choice away from fellow citizens.
I will say this, though. As someone who has seen a handful of friends and relatives suffer and ultimately die from terminal illnesses, I empathize with Packer’s condition. I imagine her daily struggles are difficult and I feel for her and her family. And the idea that an insurance company gets to decide what’s best for a patient’s care (one course of treatment over another) is disgusting to me. But using that situation, twisting the facts, and misleading people in order to further your anti-choice agenda is equally as disgusting. Shame on you, Stephanie, for attempting to prevent those suffering more than you from ending their lives on their own terms, just because you think God wants them to suffer.
We may be living in the Information Age, but it’s also the mis-Information Age. It’s so easy to take things like this at face value and share them among our circles, creating false outrage and ultimately affecting public opinion. It’s items like this that drive me as leader of Young Skeptics. We need to apply critical thinking in all aspects of our lives if we want progress. Perpetuation of misinformation will be our undoing.