As I reflected on the passing of my friend, former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Byron Johnson, I noticed the news story mentioned a hospice service was present, and as these organizations always do, helped all to ease the death at home with family present.
It reminded me that few Idahoans know that they and millions of their fellow citizens have the late Sen. Frank Church to thank for fighting for eight years and finally succeeding in 1982 (two years after he left the Senate) in getting hospice costs covered by Medicare. That benefit is today recognized as one of the most cost-effective and compassionate measures ever adopted by Congress.
There were many things I admired about Frank Church, but one of them was his absolute fearlessness regarding his mortality. Having beaten cancer in 1949 with the resolute help of Bethine (his wife), who simply refused to let him die, Frank had a wonderful view about living on borrowed time. It provided him with a perspective that allowed issues to be weighed calmly in the long term, not in the heat of the moment.
Thus, it was in 1972 the senator used his chairmanship of the Special Committee on Aging to hold a hearing on the issue of Death with Dignity and brought before the committee to testify Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, author of a best-selling book in 1969 titled Death and Dying. At the hearing she made an eloquent plea:
We live in a particularly death-fearing society. We isolate both the dying and the old, and it serves a purpose. They are reminders of our own mortality. We should not institutionalize people. We can give families more help with home care and visiting nurses, giving families and the patient the spiritual, emotional and financial help in order to facilitate the final care at home.
Sen. Church took that to heart, and from that testimony he and Sen. Frank Moss of Utah introduced the first legislation to provide federal funding for hospice care. That was 1974. It took eight years of continually pounding away, but their effort finally bore fruit with Congress, including a provision to create a Medicare hospice benefit in the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982.
It carried a 1986 sunset clause. President Ronald Reagan, of course, signed the legislation, and by 1986 the benefits of a Medicare-supported hospice care were so obvious that Congress made the benefit permanent.
Sooner or later every family will become aware of hospice, as a relative or friend will choose to seek a hospice agency to provide palliative care and support to a dying loved one. Remember to thank Frank Church.
And while youre at it, whether it is in memory of Byron Johnson or Frank Church or a loved one, most hospice organizations are 501(c)(3)s and will gladly accept a donation to help defray their costs, not all of which are reimbursable. For the individual and family, the expenses are mostly covered by Medicare and will continue to be under President Obamas health care reform.
I honestly think the national organization of hospice care providers ought to seek an annual proclamation by the president on behalf of the people thanking Sens. Frank Church and Frank Moss for recognizing a true and legitimate need we all have and for tenaciously pushing for it to be fulfilled.
Bless them both.
Cecil Andrus is a former governor of Idaho.