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Sorting out the truth in politics

PolitiFact: Sebelius alone not responsible for fate of 10-year-old lung patient

The statement

"One person, Kathleen Sebelius, was going to determine whether or not" 10-year-old lung patient Sarah Murnaghan would live or die.

Rush Limbaugh, on his radio show

The ruling

Many Americans have been transfixed by the story of Sarah Murnaghan, a 10-year-old Pennsylvania girl with cystic fibrosis whose family won a court battle that improved her chances of getting a lung transplant.

Under the existing transplant rule, Murnaghan was too young to qualify for a place on the waiting list for adult lungs. So the girl's family asked Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, to waive the rule. On May 31, Sebelius did order a policy review of the age requirements, but that option could take months — likely longer than the girl could afford to wait. Sebelius declined to waive the rule in a way that would quickly aid her.

Sebelius explained her reasoning to a House committee, saying "there are about 40 very seriously ill Pennsylvanians over the age of 12 also waiting for a lung transplant, and three other children in the Philadelphia (area) at the same acuity rate as Sarah waiting for a lung transplant."

But Sebelius found herself overruled last week when a U.S. district judge ordered her to temporarily waive the rule, allowing Murnaghan to join the adult list. She received a transplant on Wednesday, her family said.

Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh blamed Sebelius for preventing Murnaghan from making the list sooner.

"Until the judge moved in, Kathleen Sebelius was the death panel. One person, Kathleen Sebelius, was going to determine whether or not (Murnaghan lived or died), and she said, 'Some people live. Some people die.' "

In this case, Limbaugh is correct that Sebelius did have the power to overrule the age requirements of the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network — the entity that oversees transplants in the United States.

But the problem with Limbaugh's claim is that he uses the term "one person," boiling down what amounts to a life-or-death question to Sebelius alone. That's not accurate.

The system for deciding who gets organ transplants includes several layers of responsibility. The guidelines were put together in an exhaustive rulemaking process, with wide public input. On an ongoing basis, the medical experts on the network's board interpret and enforce these rules. Then, Sebelius serves as a court of appeal. Finally, a federal judge has the power to overrule her appeal, as one did in this case.

"The system of rules is built on decisions by medical and transplant experts in the area, in this case lungs," said Arthur Caplan, a New York University bioethicist. "No one person can or should have all authority over rationing organs."

So while it's true Sebelius played an appeals role in the transplant-policy process, she was not the only person or entity that did. We rate Limbaugh's claim Mostly False.

LOUIS JACOBSON, Times Staff Writer

Edited for print. Read the full version at

PolitiFact: Sebelius alone not responsible for fate of 10-year-old lung patient 06/12/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 12, 2013 10:23pm]
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