Written by Julia A. Seymour
It's been a recurring media theme since President Obama was elected - tell a news story the way he told it in a speech or press conference and then ignore the critics.
That's exactly what the networks did in health care reform stories May 11 and 12, immediately before and after Obama's mid-day speech on May 11. Out of eight segments and two news briefs only one included a critic. One other segment included brief footage of a commercial opposing government-run health insurance.
ABC's Diane Sawyer touted the significance of the event, calling it "D-Day for health care" reform, just hours before Obama spoke about his meeting with health care industry, union and trade groups. She also suggested the administration plan would benefit patients saying, "What's the first thing they'll do for you and your family?"
"They're here because they recognize one clear, indisputable fact: When it comes to health care spending, we are on an unsustainable course that threatens the financial stability of families, businesses and government itself," Obama said.
According to Obama, health care costs are a "growing crisis," in need of a government solution. On the campaign trail, Obama called for the creation of a public health care plan that could resemble Medicare, the government health program estimated to be insolvent in eight years.
In harmony with the administration, ABC, CBS and NBC also praised the coalition with industry, which previously "opposed health care reform," and took the need for "reform" for granted. All three morning shows even brought on Obama's controversial Health and Human Services Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, May 12 to discuss health care reform, without bringing on any dissenters.
CBS' Harry Smith, ABC's Robin Roberts and NBC's Meredith Vieira threw mostly softballs at Sebelius regarding the administration's plan for health care. The toughest question came from Vieira, who at least admitted there was criticism coming from somewhere.
"And to those that have expressed concern that we're heading down the path to socialized medicine, when you see this plan unfolding, what do you see and how big will government's role be?" Vieira asked allowing Sebelius to dismiss such concerns and claim Obama's plan will be all about "choice."
After concluding her interview with Sebelius, Roberts affirmed that there were "so many signs of progress." In that interview, Sebelius claimed that 46 million Americans are uninsured. Obama cited the same number in a March 5 speech about health care reform, but both were wrong. As the Business & Media Institute has pointed out, that number includes roughly 10 million non-citizens and several million more that earn more than $75,000 per year.
A Kaiser Family Foundation study put the number for the chronically uninsured around 8.2 million.
Can't Stop ObamaCare
According to the administration and the news media there is plenty of "momentum" to get health care reforms passed this year.
George Stephanopoulos told ABC viewers May 11 it's "probably the best chance we've had in 15 or 16 years to actually get a comprehensive health care plan through." He said the major difference between now and 1994 - when HillaryCare was destroyed - was that industry groups would "rather switch than fight."
ABC Medical Editor Tim Johnson, a supporter of the ill-fated Clinton health insurance plan, told Charles Gibson the industry "see[s] the momentum building."
On May 11, CBS "Evening News" made it sound like everyone was finally on board with an overhaul of the American health insurance system when Bill Plante said "the one-time opponents have changed their minds."
Obama himself claimed that industry had seen the light, so to speak, and recognized "that we can't continue down the same dangerous road we've been traveling for so many years, that costs are out of control, and that reform is not a luxury that can be postponed, but a necessity that cannot wait."
White House correspondent Jake Tapper was the only network reporter to express skepticism about that point. Tapper pointed out that "these groups also fear Congress passing a bill they hate. The insurance industry, for instance, does not want the government to offer a competing plan."
Tapper's story on "World News" May 11 was also the only one to include a critic. He interviewed Michael Cannon, Director of Health Policy Studies at Cato Institute, who summed up the industry's reasoning: "Everyone wants a seat at the table because no one wants to be on the menu."
Cannon offered further comments on Fox News Channel May 11 telling viewers that it wasn't actually the industry corroborating with Obama to cut health care costs, but lobbyists making promises.
"It is a vast departure. In fact, I think it's a little too vast departure. When do you ever hear lobbyists saying ‘Hey, we want to reduce revenue for our members.' There's something fishy going on here and look it, what the president wants to do it cover all of the uninsured. That costs close to $2 trillion over the next ten years. To come up with that money he's either got to tax people or cut payments to health care providers."
Cannon also attacked the idea of momentum calling it a "media stunt" on CNBC Reports May 11. He said "The administration would like to create this impression of inevitability. That's exactly what today's media stunt was about."
All the networks stories emphasized the potential savings as explained by Obama, but most did not talk about how much it might cost to reform the health care system. According to the May 13 Washington Times, insuring the nation's uninsured might be paid for by taxing employee health care benefits.
As Tapper pointed out, private insurers don't want the government to create a "public option" plan. Why? Because it would run them out of business.
Though Obama did not specifically endorse a "public option" on May 11, he has supported it in the past. According to an FAQ on the Obama Web site, "Obama's plan actually will increase the choices available to you ... If you do not have insurance you can choose to enroll in the new public plan ... or you can choose private plan options through the national health exchange."
Dr. Scott Gottlieb says that public option is the "heart" of Obama's plan and will resemble Medicare, which according to the Los Angeles Times is only eight years away from "insolvency." Gottlieb, a former official at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal explaining the flaws with that idea.
The Medicare-style public plan "will soon become the single dominant health plan, which is its political purpose. It will restructure the practice of medicine in the process," Gottlieb said, citing an estimate from health care researchers The Lewin Group, which said two-thirds of the privately insured "will move out of or lose coverage."
This would also impact doctors' pay, since patients shifting to a lower-cost government plan could cut their pay by 15 to 20 percent depending on their field.
According to The New York Times, five senior Republican senators have expressed their opposition to public option to Obama.
"In a letter to Mr. Obama, they said that ‘forcing free market plans to compete with these government-run programs would create an unlevel playing field and inevitably doom true competition.'"
Several health care policy experts analyzed Obama's campaign plan for health care reform and pointed out that it would distort the market, "undercut private plans," and lead to the disappearance of private plans, ultimately leaving consumers with no option but the government plan.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the Senate Finance Committee has released three options for the public plan. "Under one, it would resemble Medicare: The government would administer the plan and set the rates."
The media should be examining this proposal carefully, since Medicare is a known financial disaster.
Another Kind of Reform
Although the networks didn't mention any free market solutions to America's health insurance dilemma, there are options other than expansion of government.
Gottlieb argued in his Journal op-ed that private plans "are more likely to lead payment reform efforts," and pointed out some good examples of private success.
"Among the promising examples of private innovation in health-care delivery: In Pennsylvania, the Geisinger Clinic's ‘warranty' program, where providers take financial responsibility for the entire episode of care; or the experience of the Blue Cross Blue Shield plans in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Virginia, where doctors are paid more for delivering better outcomes," Gottlieb said.
John H. Cochrane, the Myron S. Scholes Professor of Finance at the University of Chicago, wrote in Investor's Business Daily that "rigorous competition and free consumer choice are the only hope for better service, innovation and lower costs. This is especially true in health care, which is a complex and fast-changing service-oriented business."
Cochrane advocates "health-status insurance" and reversing the preference for employer-based group insurance."
"It makes no sense that the government pushes this system on us rather than encourage us to buy individual insurance that already protects against long-term illness," Cochrane said.