Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) was in Ashburn Wednesday to discuss his proposed federal initiative to promote advanced illness planning with leaders of area hospice, health care and elder care organizations.
His bill, titled the Senior Navigation & Planning Act, was first proposed in 2009 and is designed to help patients and families better prepare for long illnesses, while increasing access to palliative and hospice care aimed at reducing suffering.
While a sensitive political topic—the concepts were at the root of the “death panel” quips by Sarah Palin and other healthcare reform critics in 2009—the three dozen care providers gathered in the School Board meeting room in Broadlands agreed that a better understanding of living wills, advance directives and powers of attorney was important to families and the overall healthcare system.
“America is the only advanced country in the world that hasn’t had an adult conversation about this,” Warner said. Audience members were all too familiar with the concerns, as they serve on the front line trying to help patients and their families navigate through complex and emotional choices. In sharing their concerns and recommendations with Warner, many drew on experiences with their own family members to express frustrations about the inability to make sure medical providers honor patients’ treatment wishes. They talked about situations when the hospital staff was not made aware of patients’ directives before starting unwanted treatment and about families’ difficulties in getting information about patient conditions because of HEPA regulations.
More important, Warner and other providers agreed, was the need for families to discuss end-of-life planning so they can act confidently when faced with difficult decisions, and have the documentation in hand giving them the power to ensure those wishes are carried out.
Warner suggested it should be a topic around the table for families at Thanksgiving.
He and others said there would be merit in a public service ad campaign to raise awareness of the need for families to have the discussions. Getting information on life planning issues in the hands of area religious leaders to share with their congregations also was identified as an important outreach option.
But Warner acknowledged the challenge is not only about raising awareness of the planning needs. Information families need is not readily available, another concern his legislation seeks to address.
“We really don’t have a ‘how to’ guidebook,” Warner said.
While increased community outreach can proceed without federal legislation, Warner will be taking his third try to push his bill through Congress, with the goal of making care planning a standard benefit available for Medicare and Medicaid patients.
Participants after the hour-long session said they welcomed the platform to air their concerns—and their support for Warner’s proposals. Several also urged the formation of a regional coalition of hospice and palliative caregivers, hospitals and faith-based organizations to promote life planning to area families.