A Laurel to the Columbus Dispatch

A newspaper gets real with real people

We at CJR have long urged news outlets to consider at how the candidates’ proposals will affect real people. To that end, we have been running our own series, Health Care on the Mississippi, which has discussed how John McCain’s and Barack Obama’s health plans would affect various residents of a small Arkansas town on the Mississippi River. So we were pleased to see that the Columbus Dispatch has gone beyond the standard treatment of the candidates’ health proposals and asked some deeper questions about what those plans would do.

The paper used a local family, the Wirebaughs, to illustrate just what it means to have insurance, lose it when a job is outsourced, and get on Medicaid, only to be kicked off when the breadwinner gets a new job with insurance but with a three-month waiting period, during which the family is uninsured again. While the family had no insurance, they delayed getting medical care—regular check-ups for the pregnant Barbara Wirebaugh and her young sons. When a pre-employment physical revealed that her husband had an enlarged heart, he, too, delayed treatment, and worried that his condition would disqualify him under the new employer’s plan.

The paper has the candidates’ campaigns discuss how the Wirebaughs would fare under their proposals, and quoted a number of independent health care gurus, many from Ohio, who moved beyond the boilerplate comments we have been hearing from many in the health policy establishment. The head of the Ohio State Medical Association said that neither plan reduces health costs, neither offers universal coverage, neither offers a financing method, and neither addresses the inadequate primary care work force. He is spot on.

The president of a public-private partnership called Access HealthColumbus zoomed in on the overarching problem, saying that neither candidate sets a course for health-care policy. “The longer we avoid talking about this underlying policy issue the worse it becomes. Some of these ideas are good Band-Aids, but they’re still Band-Aids,” he said. Blogger Robert Laszewski, who also heads a Virginia consulting firm, noted that both plans call for the “same relatively uncontroversial and incremental cost containment ideas.” He called them “cost containment lite.” Laszewski also reiterated a point he has been making for awhile: that neither candidate’s plan is likely to pass.

Laszewski may be right, but it would be a shame if editors got the idea that they should forget about health care. There’s too much at stake, and the public is looking for leaders who will address this issue. Just ask the Wirebaughs, the people we’ve been profiling in Arkansas, and countless others whom newspapers should be writing about. With the election quickly looming, it’s beyond time to put Obama’s and McCain’s proposals to the sniff test.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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.