Watchdog Blog

Barry Sussman: When the Law and the Facts are Against You, Say Public Opinion is on Your Side

Posted at 4:14 pm, December 28th, 2009
Barry Sussman Mug

The last few days, I’ve seen and heard numerous statements by leading Republicans such as John McCain and what’s his name from Kentucky to the effect that public opinion is wildly against the health care reform legislation now moving through Congress.

Maybe they’re correct. If so, it’s uninformed public opinion created by screeching, repetitious and famously wrong assertions by McCain, by what’s his name, and by Charles Grassley of Iowa, among others. It’s a bit much to believe that a majority of Americans who usually can’t answer correctly which political party has a majority in the Senate and which a majority in the House is suddenly super well-informed about complicated legislation with intricate parts.

I’m not out to defend the legislation itself here – or even to say these officious Senators are wrong. The fact is, it’s entirely possible that many people have turned against the versions of health care reform about to be melded into one, But if they have, it’s for the same old rotten reasons:

• The Republicans with the scare masks are doing a good job.
• The Democrats gave away an awful lot to the hold-up artists and drug and insurer interests among them to get a bill they compare to a starter house, not one most people would want to live in.
• The elite news media, while trying to deal with some of the details, give space and air time to the wild GOP assertions but almost always leave them unchallenged.

Unchallenged for the most part, for example, are frequent GOP charges that the legislation will destroy Medicare. (For them that’s wishful thinking.) A few days ago I heard the Senator from Utah, Uriah Hatch, crying that Medicare Advantage plans will be damaged. Medicare Advantage is run by big private insurers who get substantial subsidies to lure older Americans out of traditional Medicare, helping speed its demise and raising rates for everyone else.

As a candidate President Obama singled out Medicare Advantage for cuts. By my recollection, he was the only candidate who even addressed the issue. Independent experts tend to approve big cuts in Medicare Advantage – but you wouldn’t know that from the coverage, because, almost universally, there isn’t any.

The press needs to explain, as best it can, what will happen when subsidies to the big Medicare Advantage insurers are reduced. Will insurers fold that part of their business? If they do, can subscribers get back into traditional Medicare easily? Would that make long-term prospects for Medicare better or worse? In addition, many cuts in Medicare will be in other areas, not in Medicare Advantage at all, and the press needs to explain what’s in store.

Until there is such coverage, on Medicare and other health reform issues, a good rule of thumb for citizens is to pay no attention to what most Democrats say, as they are unreliable backslappers. (That’s not true for all of them. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, stands out as sincere, outspoken and caring. But then again, he’s an independent.) Pay great attention to what Republicans say, and believe the opposite.

How should the press be challenging the Republicans? Well, a letter to the editor of the Washington Post by Judith Stein, executive director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy, offers some advice. Stein, an occasional contributor to Nieman Watchdog, wrote this in the Dec. 28 Post:

The Senate health reform bill includes a variety of inducements for those whose votes were required to move the bill forward. Certainly some of this is too bad. But some of the add-ons, such as funding for community health centers and hospitals, make sense.
Does anyone remember when, and how, the Medicare Act of 2003 was negotiated and passed — by a Republican Congress with a Republican president? I bet Sens. Lindsey O. Graham, Charles Grassley and other Republicans who are crying foul remember.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid’s negotiations are child’s play compared with the predawn arm-twisting of 2003, when the voting was held open in the House for an unprecedented three hours while a five-vote plurality was mustered.
And what inducements were included in that law? Hundreds of billions of dollars in giveaways to private Medicare insurance plans and, remarkably, a prohibition against Medicare negotiating with the pharmaceutical industry under the new Part D drug program. These huge bonuses to private industry have threatened Medicare’s solvency and unnecessarily taken huge sums from taxpayers.
Reporting about the current health reform agreements ought to include some of this recent history, which few know about, acknowledge or care to remember.

It’s an odd moment in American journalism when advocacy groups, not the press, are the ones to provide important, down-the-middle context.

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