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Who is Betsy McCaughey?

Betsy McCaughey continues to make a name for herself as a critic of national health care. Since the publication of her article “No Exit” on February 7 1994 in the New Republic, which has been widely associated with the destruction of the Clinton Administration’s attempt at health care reform, she has drawn the ire of many on the Left while becoming a champion of those on the Right. 

Fast forward to 2009 and McCaughey has come forward yet again to argue against potential revisions to health care outlined by the Stimulus Bill and health care Bill 3200. Many see McCaughey as the inspiration for the near omnipresent “Death Panel” allegations leveled at the Obama Administration.  This radical interpretation has struck a chord of anxiety and even fear across America, serving to derail town hall meetings across the country to the frustration of health care reformers.

McCaughey is cited on a national level as a source of authority on the future of health care , but where and how did she gain authority? At the end of the unedited version of her appearance on The Daily Show Ms. McCaughey said, “I’ve been reading legislation for 30 years. I have a Ph.D in this field, constitutional history . . . I’m not an inexperienced student of this topic.”

McCaughey became the first person in her family to attend college after receiving a Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Lehman Fellowship to study at Vassar. Graduating with a degree in history McCaughey moved on to Columbia. Despite a few raised eyebrows at McCaughey’s unusual choices of fashion -- she reportedly attended Graduate Seminars in mink coats and high heels -- she went on to earn both a Masters Degree and Ph.D in Constitutional History from Columbia. Accolades were many, including a John Jay Fellowship, Richard B. Morris Prize, and the prestigious Bancroft Dissertation Award. The subject of her dissertation was on William Samuel Johnson, whom one historian called an “Inordinately dull founding father.”

From 1977-1994 she held a variety of Professional Positions including: Visiting Assistant Professor Vassar College, Lecturer Columbia University, Assistant Professor Columbia University, Post Doctoral Fellow- National Endowment for The Humanities, Senior Scholar- Center for The Study of The Presidency, and John M. Olin Fellow at The Manhattan Institute.

Up to this point McCaughey had charted a course of academic promise but relative obscurity. It was not until the publication of “No Exit” with its criticism of the Clinton Administration’s Health Security Act that Betsy McCaughey became a truly national voice.

 The Clinton White House responded to “No Exit” with a 9-page analysis of McCaughey’s "factual inaccuracies and misleading statements.” She responded to the release, in turn, with the coyly titled piece, “She’s Baaack,” in the Wall Street Journal. The recognition given to her by the White House played a large part in raising her profile and giving her the chance to become a political star. “No Exit” went on to win the National Magazine Award for Public Interest, although liberal critics subsequently belittled the article, citing numerous flaws. Attempts to access the article on the New Republic's website are met with an editorial note that essentially apologizes for the publication of her piece.

As a result of her battle with the Clinton administration McCaughey caught the attention of New York's George Pataki. Pataki asked her to run as his Lieutenant Governor when he ran for Governor. They won. McCaughey served just one term. She clashed often with Pataki on health care and educational reforms. James Dao of the New York Times wrote in 1996, “In what has become an open secret …the Governor and his aides have locked the Lieutenant Governor out of their circle.” She famously stood during Pataki’s State of the State Address while the rest of the dignitaries sat (as is custom). Additionally, McCaughey issued press releases and spoke on topics without prior approval. While McCaughey publicly denied turmoil within the office her actions betrayed ambitions that the Governor found disturbing. In 1998 he dropped her as his running mate.

McCaughey persevered nonetheless. In a surprise move she switched to the Democratic Party and ran for Governor as a Democrat, though she had voted Republican her whole life. Initially the majority of contributions to her campaign came from her billionaire husband, Wilbur Ross. However, toward the end of the campaign the two became estranged and he withdrew some $2.2 million worth of contributions. Media at the time focused on Betsy’s use of her own money to finance a campaign that ultimately ended in a loss.

After her defeat, McCaughey began focusing on public policy. In 2004 she became the Executive Director of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths (RID), which she founded. The nonprofit was founded to reduce hospital deaths that occur as a result of infection. The organization claims that infection in hospitals are responsible for more annual deaths than AIDS, Cancer, and auto accidents combined. RID has passed legislation in 25 states, forcing hospitals to make infection rates publicly available in an attempt to hold them accountable for their preventive procedures. During her time as Executive Director McCaughey has had to resign from Board Positions at two different medical companies. On August 21 2009 she resigned from the Cantel Medical Group. Cantel Medical Group is “a leading provider of infection prevention and control products in the health care market.” McCaughey resigned in order to, “Avoid any appearance of conflict of interest during the national debate over health care reform.”

McCaughey became a player in the national debate over health care after President Obama embraced reform. Her reappearance can be traced back to an op-ed she published on Bloomberg.com titled, “Ruin Your Health with the Obama Stimulus Plan.”

In the piece McCaughey asserted that “hidden provisions” in the Stimulus Bill would adversely affect the elderly in America. McCaughey argued that a newly formed Federal Coordinating Council for Comparative Effectiveness Research ( H.R.1.E.H) would change the current Medicare policy of approving treatments deemed “safe and effective” to a rubric that “approves or rejects treatments using a formula that divides the cost of the treatment by the number of years the patient is likely to benefit.”  In other words, in her interpretation, a dollar value would now be assigned to human life. McCaughey in recent months extended this line of reasoning, equating the proposed policy change to a sort of euthanasia for the elderly through a “mandatory . . . counseling session . . . that would tell them how to end their life sooner.” (AKA: the infamous Death Panels.)

Today, the focus is still on the elderly, but has shifted toward health care Bill H.R. 3200 and its provision for the creation of Advance Care Planning Consultation (p. 424 Sec.1233).  McCaughey often refers to this portion of the health care Bill as End of Life Counseling. In the past month some Republicans have echoed her arguments, including Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. In a note posted on her Facebook page, Palin wrote caustically, “The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel.”

McCaughey’s ongoing assault has drawn the ire of many. Historian Joshua Brown recently characterized her as the “Doyenne of Deception.” James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly wrote, “She has brought more misinformation, more often, more destructively into America's consideration of health-policy issues than any other individual.” Jon Stewart on The Daily Show said he believed her reading of the health care bill was hyperbolic and dangerous.

A Google search shows the powerful influence McCaughey has had over the health care debate.

Starting a search at the date of Sarah Palin’s “Death Panel” note and ending on September 7th for the term “Death Panels” yields 6,146 results. A search using identical parameters for “End of Life Counseling” yields 1,205 results. “Advance Care Planning Consultation” yields only 82 results. The public discourse seems to have shifted.

The Los Angeles Times reported that as of September 4 searches such as “Death Panels” have become so popular among Google’s search terms that, “As many as 97 organizations were buying ads linked to aspects of the debate. They included the seniors lobby AARP, the liberal group Health Care for America Now and conservative stalwarts such as the Club for Growth.” Depending on how much each advertiser bids determines whether or not a Google search for a term like “Death Panels” is accompanied by a sponsored (purchased) link. HNN’s own experiments searching for “Death Panels” reveal that barackobama.com and moveon.org appear to be winning the bidding battle with their sponsored links “Death Panel Myth” or “Death Panels?” dominating accompanied search results.

McCaughey has been so successful in shaping the public debate that President Obama has had to make repeated attempts to rebut her characterization of end-of-life counseling as death panels. In his speech to a joint session of Congress on September 9 he called the whole notion of "death panels" a lie:

Some of people's concerns have grown out of bogus claims spread by those whose only agenda is to kill reform at any cost. The best example is the claim made not just by radio and cable talk show hosts, but by prominent politicians, that we plan to set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens. Now, such a charge would be laughable if it weren't so cynical and irresponsible. It is a lie, plain and simple.

One of the most striking patterns in McCaughey’s public life is the frequency with which her opinions are treated with scorn by the mainstream media. The article that launched her to fame, “No Exit,” cannot currently be searched without first encountering an apology from the Editor of the magazine that published it. The New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, and other MSM sources have all accused her of misstating basic facts. Nonetheless, she has found a warm reception among conservatives like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Sarah Palin.

While the merit of McCaughey of her positions is open to debate, her widespread effect on the public discourse is undeniable.