Healthcare reform is a hot topic right now, but for the majority of the media, it’s not a story they have a great deal of experience reporting. Out of 3,513 health news stories in newspapers, on TV and radio, and online between January 2007 and June 2008, health care policy comprised less than one percent of news stories and just 27.4 percent of health-focused stories.
Still, now they have no choice: Health care is a big story right now, as President Obama pushes it to the top of his agenda and lawmakers, pundits and lobbyists move into formation to support or oppose. This week, Ted Kennedy – the Lion! – is on the cover of Newsweek, putting his name and brand behind health care as his signature issue, as he battles brain cancer; the article bears his byline. Health care ads are back, with their ominous tones or all-American families, depending. Even Harry and Louise are back — though this time, they’ve switched sides. Now they like health care reform. Go figure.
Obama started a major media push last week to set forth his own plan. Last Wednesday, his political arm, Organizing For America, launched an ad campaign to try to sway Democrats and Republicans who were still unsure what direction reform should go. He made an address from the Rose Garden later that afternoon and sat for interviews ABC, CBS and NBC for each of their evening newscasts. Tonight he’s got another of his now-regular prime time press conferences to press the issue. All this is meant to push his message to the front of the line – though recent noises about his overxposure suggest a law of diminishing returns there.
Policy isn’t sexy, so mainstream media outlets tend to package health care reform around personality and politics – and conflict, of course. Obama’s August deadline plays into this, adding an element of urgency to the mix. The media, in turn, feeds off of the urgency, treating it all as if it were a breaking story, rather than digging into the details. Combative comments like Jim DeMint declaring this potentially “Obama’s Waterloo” become the story. Well, if it is, the press could be seen as unwitting pawns to this battle.
Here’s a good example: On Thursday, Douglas Elmendorf, director of the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office met with members of the Senate Budget Committee, his remarks were characterized this way by the Washington Post:
“Under questioning by members of the Senate Budget Committee, Douglas Elmendorf, director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, said bills crafted by House leaders and the Senate health committee do not propose “the sort of fundamental changes” necessary to rein in the skyrocketing cost of government health programs, particularly Medicare. On the contrary, Elmendorf said, the measures would pile on an expensive new program to cover the uninsured.”
If you’re not a healthcare wonk who keeps current on the corners of the blogosphere that covers the reform beat, you may have taken the statement made by as definitive proof that current reform efforts were dead on arrival. The truth of the matter is, as Jonathan Cohn at The New Republic explains, Elmendorf has only seen two pieces of legislation, far from a representative view of the full slate of options that congress is working on. In light of the criticism of the proposals, Ezra Klein at the Washington Post asked critics to apply a five-rule test which asks them what kind of proposal they would support. The critical problem with Ezra’s test is there isn’t an option to do nothing, which some people would be perfectly fine with.
President Obama hasn’t exactly been a straight shooter either when it comes to his version of healthcare reform. On Saturday, in his weekly address he said the following:
“Under our proposals, if you like your doctor, you keep your doctor. If you like your current insurance, you keep that insurance. Period, end of story.”
This is not entirely true. Nearly all citizens receive healthcare through their employers. Employees are beholden to the choices their employer make regarding their health care options. Under the current system and in Obama’s proposed system, your employer would still be calling the shots, not you. The opposition to Obama uses the same tactic, trying to say that reform will take away the ability for the voter to choose their doctor or insurance when they never had the choice to begin with. This fact has been lost in the press, and seems so obvious, yet they ignore it and play up the antagonist/protagonist angle which they seem to feel is more entertaining.
Some options are being shut out entirely. One example of a reform option being buried by the networks is single-payer.
The single-payer option reimburses doctors and hospitals from a single fund rather than multiple insurance pools. In a single-payer system, doctors are not making their decisions based on covering their asses with unnecessary tests and insurance companies are not cherry-picking the youngest and healthiest people to insure.
Dr. David Scheiner was scheduled to appear on ABC last night. Despite being Obama’s private physician for 22 years, they don’t see eye to eye when it comes to healthcare reform. When ABC found out Dr. Scheiner might ask a question about Medicare as an example of a single-payer option, his appearance was cancelled.
This is just one week in the media life cycle of healthcare reform debate. The nuances of all the options are so esoteric that its hard for the casual news observer to digest, and even harder for the various networks, newspapers and blogs to make sense of it all – and pundit shoutfests over politican soundbites don’t make things any clearer. On top of all that, now lawmakers are racing against the clock to try and get a bill passed in the House before August break. It seems unlikely they’ll get it done.
Then again, they all have great health insurance, so they probably won’t die trying.
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