A Dart to the Buffalo News

Paper confuses Medicare Advantage news with insurance marketing tactics

The Dewey Square Group must have been pleased as punch to see the Buffalo News’s coverage of its Medicare Advantage community meeting, one of six held around the country since the middle of April. As Campaign Desk points out in this article’s companion piece, Dewey Square is a political consulting and marketing firm that works for the insurance industry. Its job is to honcho the activities of the insurers’ “product coalition,” the Coalition for Medicare Choices. One of its tactics—in a grand strategy of juicing up seniors to send letters and e-mails to members of Congress—is to give them food and then set them a-writin’. These events set the stage for a massive letter-writing campaign that protests proposed cuts in federal funding for Medicare Advantage plans.

The News sent its reporter to cover the meeting, which it called a “rally of sorts.” The article noted that the Coalition, which sponsored the rally, was a “group consisting of insurers and their clients.” What clients? Did the paper mean seniors or Dewey Square? Who organized the event? What’s at stake for the insurers? The paper didn’t go there, and it didn’t tell readers that the Coalition is an Astroturf group that can muster more than 800,000 seniors to write letters protesting the funding cuts. These are usually form letters pre-written by the coalition.
Seniors are likely to believe what they are writing, but they often don’t really understand the issues behind the letter-writing campaign. If they understood the stakes, they might not be so eager to cooperate. Since it’s unlikely the coalition will give them the facts, the press must do that. And the Buffalo News fell down on the job.

The paper did, though, deliver the Coalition’s message in the second graph:

If funding is reduced for Medicare Advantage—which provides broader health care options through private insurers—participants could face higher premiums, reduced benefits or both, the coalition said.

Through video messages and live presentations, the paper reported, participants praised Medicare Advantage plans and urged others to tell lawmakers of their support. There was Paul Klonowski, who described his “invaluable” experiences with his plan. Maryann Smith said her plan lets her attend wellness seminars that “help me quite a bit.” “I want my voice to be heard,” she added.

Health plan execs wanted theirs heard too, and the Buffalo News obliged. Industry officials attended the meeting but didn’t speak. They did that by issuing a press release. In its story, the paper published three quotes piled on top of each other from bigwigs representing three health plans in the Buffalo area. Said the CEO of HealthNow New York, the parent of the local BlueCrossBlue Shield organization: “Medicare Advantage plans are essential to the physical and financial health of millions of Americans because they fill the gaps in coverage left by Medicare.” Another exec said the hope was that such grassroots meetings would “educate our lawmakers on this important issue.” Using industry reps like this, you have to admit, is a pretty clever tactic.

But where was the other side? The Buffalo News forgot some of the basics of journalism on this one. The piece could have used a lot of reporting, analysis, and—duh—some balance. Where was the information that overpaying Medicare Advantage plans could raise Medicare premiums for everyone in the program? Where was a discussion of the program’s politics? During the campaign and afterward, the President said he wanted to trim Medicare Advantage funding; many experts believe that savings from these excess payments could be used to subsidize insurance for the uninsured.

But, perhaps most important, where were the warnings about the substantial problems with the Medicare Advantage plans? Hidden coinsurance charges, for example, can leave seniors with huge bills when serious illness strikes. Insurers know that wellness seminars and gym memberships are cheap—and that people like these perks, too. It’s a great way for them to buy off their policyholders. It’s far more costly for them to cover the entire bill for chemotherapy.

The Coalition provided the thirty or so people who came to the meeting with the means to write or e-mail their elected representatives immediately. That, of course, was what it was all about. And without any analysis or comment from the other side, no doubt some readers took their cues from the paper and joined the letter-writing campaign. The industry couldn’t have gotten better PR.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.