A Headline Writer Gets Carried Away

A real plan, or a lot of sweet talk from Daschle and his Senate colleagues?

The headline on a New York Times story Friday piqued my interest and probably that of health care mavens who scour the paper for clues to the Administration’s current thinking. “Daschle Lays Out a Plan to Overhaul Health Care,” the headline read. So maybe, I thought, the health chief and his team had come forth with some SPECIFICS about what they really had in mind for reform. I was especially hopeful because a Times story the day before had made me think that senators who are confirming Daschle for Secretary of Health and Human Services were planning to ask some hard questions. At least that’s what the headline said: “Daschle to Face Tough Questions on Competition in Health Insurance.”

But when push came to shove, there was no pushing and no shoving. The second Times story reported that the senators gave Daschle a “friendly welcome,” listened to him tell stories about people who had no insurance, heard him say that he wanted to work with Republicans and that he would not rush through legislation under fast-track budget procedures. Daschle repeated parts of the Obama health mantra: greater use of health IT, more emphasis on disease prevention, speeding up approval of generic drugs. Nothing new here. Where was the plan for the “overhaul,” a word that implies big changes a coming? As every reporter knows, headlines can be misleading, and that’s what happened here. As Politico reported, “the expected questioning over some of the more controversial aspects of Obama’s health care reform plan never materialized, and Daschle did not offer policy specifics, or even a timeline for action.”

Senators didn’t pin him down on the public plan option, the key to significant reform, nor did they ask how the president-elect planned to pay for some of these health initiatives that include raising Medicare fees to family doctors. The Times said that Daschle himself didn’t get into that. He didn’t talk about Medicare, but maybe he will do that at a Senate Finance Committee hearing where the Times said he could face tough questioning. But, geez, he was supposed to face hard questions this time.

U.S. senators can throw soft balls; journalists should not. So we were pleased to see a Times editorial with its own headline: “Cuddly Welcome for Mr. Daschle,” which was more on point than the senators. The editorial called the confirmation hearing “mostly a love-fest” and then raised a few knottier issues like paying for the Obama health care plan and cost containment. It reported that Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi, had issued a press release warning against insurance coverage through government-run bureaucracies and insisting that coverage expansion come through private insurance. Enterprising reporters should connect the dots between the Enzi camp’s approach and Daschle’s professed aim to be cooperative with Republicans. What does that mean for reform?

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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.