Woodstockers’ woes

I was not at Woodstock back in the summer of 1969, though I was of the proper age — 19 and finished with my sophomore year at Fairfield University — and disposition.

A job as a roaming tennis instructor for the Yonkers, N.Y., parks department kept me from a van full of my friends who had left early for the upstate pilgrimage. History might be history, but a summer job is a summer job.

Time. A day — particularly a bad day — can go by so slowly. But decades rush past like a kid on a bike racing downhill. The citizens of Woodstock Nation are all older than 60 now. “By the time we got to Woodstock we were half a million strong,” the song said, and ready for revolution. Now we’re getting ready for our old age.

It’s said that the accusation that “death panels” were part of health care reform proposals was the biggest rhetorical flourish of the year. A proposal to compensate Medicare recipients for “end-of-life” counseling — which was eventually withdrawn — had been criticized as a government-sponsored opportunity to “pull the plug on grandma.”

But while there is no reference to euthanasia in the House and Senate versions of health care reform legislation, there is one undeniable fact. Both are based on projected massive savings in Medicare, savings that can only be realized if Woodstock Nation has the decency of dying off on the cheap.

The argument has been made from the start of this health care debate that the greatest expense in Medicare takes place in the last year of life. Though this is about as obvious as saying that most high school graduates finish as seniors, it is stated with a knowing nod as if a great truth has been revealed.

We are wasting resources on the sick elderly — futile procedures and needless expense, the argument goes — without ever saying the bottom line out loud: They’re all going to die anyway, so why spend money on them?

Euthanasia comes in on cats’ feet, cloaked in phrases like “death with dignity” and excused in the rhetorical question, “would you want to live like that?” — a question that should never be asked of the healthy in judging what to do with the ill. It begs a frightening answer, like Simon & Garfunkel wondering back in the 1960s in “Old Friends” about the terrible strangeness of being 70. Paul Simon is 68 and counting.

No, there are no death panels in health care reform legislation. But it is being sold based on the idea that there is a great deal of money to be saved on the backs of the oldest and the sickest.

A recent article in The New York Times reported on a Dartmouth University study analyzing medical centers that spend the most on end-of-life care but seem to have no better results than hospitals that spend far less. It has become a favorite study to cite as scripture from those who see a pot of gold to be saved in end-of-life expense.

The problem in the Dartmouth study is that it only counts the dead, not the living. It pays no attention to those who continue to live and live well because of the treatment they received.

I am not a proponent of extraordinary means being forced on those who do not want aggressive treatment and would not benefit. But in a society where food and water have been defined as extraordinary means, I wonder what will become normative in health care ethics for the elderly in the near future. At what point will the alleged right to die with dignity become the duty to die inexpensively?

In the end, a society and culture is judged by how it treats the weakest. Taking a look at the abortion rate, our track record is not great.

Woodstock Nation could be in for hard times.

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.