Blackie asks the hard questions on health care

Talking about what to do now, while you're still healthy and lucid, can make an enormous difference, not just in terms of costs but your quality of life at the end. This is what critics call the "death panel."

Meet Blackie.

She's 15, a mutt whom we think is partly Tibetan terrier.

(Here she is this morning, coming in from a bathroom break. I am not much of a photographer.)

Blackie has had a hard life. Her first owner abused her. When we got her from a shelter, at what we were told was 18 months of age, she suffered so badly from heart worms it required two treatments to get her right.

This was when my kids were very small. They named her. Guess why?

Anyway, Blackie is nearing the end of her run on this planet. She is far beyond any age that might be achieved by a wild dog.

She's blind. She's deaf. She's senile. She spends most of her days on a dog bed in the corner of our front room, sleeping. We notice her when she asks to go out for a bathroom break. Often, these days, she doesn't remember to ask and does it wherever she is.

This led us to a vet visit. Today's vets can keep pets alive as well as their human counterparts can keep grandma going.

The vet prescribed Anipryl. Its active ingredient is Seligline, sometimes prescribed for Parkinson's and depression in human beings.

It also costs over $80 per month, even from Canada. Those kids I mentioned are going to college, and I'm not feeling too good myself.

When my own bills got up that high, I worked to find generic substitutes and off-the-shelf replacements for my problems, eventually cutting my pharmacy bill in half (not counting the cost of supplements).

"Time to convene an Obama death panel," I joked.

But the question is serious, and becoming more so. We have many ways of extending life today that did not exist before. When Social Security began people lived to be 68. My father-in-law, on the other hand, was 88 when he passed, and his funeral was filled with friends who were even older than that.

For good dogs like Blackie the answer is usually made by economics. It's the American way.

But what happens when it's your mother, your spouse, or you whose life hangs in the balance? Now we're talking of much bigger numbers, I know. One-fourth of Medicare costs come in the last year of life.

Talking about what to do now, while you're still healthy and lucid, can make an enormous difference, not just in terms of costs but your quality of life at the end.

This is what critics call the "death panel." It has little to do with money, although it does save. It has everything to do with human dignity. It's a valuable service, one worth paying for.

Now if you'll excuse me I'm going to convene Blackie's death panel.