A Laurel To NPR

Strong coverage on health care issues

NPR has done some fine health reporting recently, the kind that we hope will spur others to do similar stories. In a year where much of the campaign coverage of health care has focused on the vacuous statements the candidates have made, the buzz words and the blather, NPR’s approach is refreshing—and should be an example for reporters looking for fresh angles on the health care debate.

This summer, NPR reporters traveled to Europe to examine how five European countries—France, Germany, The Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom—deal with health care. The series “Health Care for All” blew me away. In the introduction, supervising editor Joe Neel noted that waiting times for care aren’t that different from the United States, and that Europeans use the same high-tech medicine, only less of it. Combining long-form radio format with interactive devices—such as one that quickly compares important stats among the countries, including the U.S.—the series demonstrates major shortcomings in American health care. While that’s not news to health care cognoscenti, it might have startled some NPR listeners, who all too often have heard the candidates say that the U.S. has the best health care in the world.

NPR compared patients in European countries with similarly afflicted patients in the U.S. In The Netherlands, we learn how a sixty-two-year-old salesman with diabetes did not have to “pressure, cajole or argue with an insurance company to get immediate effective care” when his toe became red, swollen, and painful. He was referred to a clinic for diabetic patients with foot problems, where a multidisciplinary team, including doctors, a shoemaker, and a plaster technician, got his foot back to normal. In the U.S., a fifty-two-year-old diabetic doctor told of his fights with insurance companies to get basic necessities, like an insulin pump.

In England, a woman with multiple sclerosis gets all the care she needs from the British National Health Service. Her only gripe: paying for more physical therapy than the NHS allows. When she was first diagnosed, she had to pay out of pocket for an expensive medication until the NHS approved the drug. After it did, the NHS reimbursed her for the cost—around $10,000. “How cool is that?” she said. In the U.S., NPR described the plight of a forty-one-year-old man with MS who now receives Social Security disability payments. After a two-year wait, these will entitle him to Medicare. Bankrupt, no longer able to work, having lost his house and his health insurance, he now struggles to pay thousands of dollars each month for nine prescriptions he takes. His wife got a job with health insurance, but the copays are quickly adding up.

The series explores the popular German system, which has endured for nearly thirteen decades because, according to NPR, “constant tinkering represents the country’s effort to keep its health system fair and affordable. To an impressive extent, it’s worked.” NPR also showed how the French system, rated the best in the world by the World Health Organization, puts a premium on prenatal care and help for new mothers, in order to promote healthy childhoods. And it pointed out similarities and significant differences between the Swiss health system and the U.S. system. Some health gurus tout Switzerland as a model for America, so NPR’s story was an important contribution to the discussion.

Some of NPR’s shorter coverage also deserves a shout-out. It has been one of the few news outlets that has dared to report on Medicare this election season, explaining the looming financial crisis the program will face as costs continue to rise. One story we were pleased to see, called “Plans to Cut Health Cost May Not Pay Off,” reported that both candidates are proposing the same cost-reduction strategy: preventive care, using more generic drugs, health information technology, and other things that sound good on the campaign trail but are unlikely to significantly reduce total health care spending. At CJR we have been making that point for awhile, and have urged media outlets to do the same.

Julie Rovner, NPR’s health policy reporter, told me that, after the conventions, NPR’s health team would try to be more substantive. “Look for more serious comprehensive stuff from our desk,” she said. We will, and we hope others look too.

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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.