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47,000 Women Could Die As a Result of the New Mammogram Guidelines

Cost-benefit analysis can kill. Scaling back on mammograms, as a government task force suggested, could result in 47,000 unnecessary deaths.

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The official administration reaction so far is against the Preventive Services Task Force recommendation. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius has rejected it and said to make no change.

Hooray for Kathleen Sibelius! Tens of thousands of women owe her their lives.

The political fallout has been instructive. Steve Pearlstein, business columnist for the Washington Post, attacked Sibelius as not wanting to save money, but rather promoting waste (Nov. 20, 2009). This is pretty much the same position as the New York Times (both front-page analysis and op-ed). Most voices on the right have ignored Sibelius’ official response and instead attributed the Reagan-era Preventive Services Task Force's recommendations to official Obama health care policy, calling it "rationing" health care, while ignoring the fact that most rationing of health care is actually done by insurance companies. As expected, the most radical conservatives have seen this not only as an Obama move, but have likened it to mythical “death panels.”

I stand with Sibelius, and I take it to be the official Obama administration view. When arithmetic is added to statistics, this is a clear case of a low-probability event with major life-and-death consequences for tens of thousands of people. The overly simplistic framings — either accepting or rejecting the cost-benefit analysis without looking further — are dangerous. Just accepting the task force’s recommendation is dangerous to the women of this country, now and in the future. Calling it “rationing” and using it to argue against the health care bills in Congress is dangerous to us all.

As we sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, let us thank Kathleen Sibelius.

George Lakoff is the author of Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate ' (Chelsea Green). He is Professor of Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley and a Senior Fellow of the Rockridge Institute.

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