All the President’s Words

Still, when it comes to health reform, what does he stand for?

On Monday, the media went gaga reporting on President Obama’s fancy health reform rhetoric that flowed alongside his introduction of the new surgeon general, Dr. Regina Benjamin. For lo these many months, the president has staked out a position as health care chief in absentia. That is, he has positioned himself above the dirty business of hammering out the legislation currently being squeezed by every special health care interest in town.

The New York Times reported that he rode back into Washington with guns a-blazing. Obama “appeared in the Rose Garden to cast himself as a kind of sheriff who had just come back to town.” Here is what the president had to say:

• “I just want to put everybody on notice, because there was a lot of chatter during the week that I was gone. We are going to get this done.”

• “Inaction is not an option.”

• “And for those naysayers and cynics who think that this is not going to happen, don’t bet against us.”

• “We are going to make this thing happen because the American people desperately need it.”

Comforting words perhaps to the public, many of whom believe that some massive overhaul of the health system is about to spring forth; and maybe even to members of Congress, who apparently are desperate for some presidential gravitas as the special interests tighten their grip over legislative language.

But do the words translate into support for such reform flashpoints as a public plan option resembling Medicare, or some wishy-washy version that might be held in reserve if the regular insurance market fails to work properly? Or taxing employer-provided health benefits? Or an individual mandate that would require everyone to carry insurance even if that means a family must forego some other necessity or pay a tax penalty? And then how many of the uninsured should be covered by the limited funding under consideration by Congress? And by when?

The answer is that we still don’t know what the president stands for. On CNN this Sunday, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said that health care overhaul “needs to be owned by the House and the Senate,” and won’t be dictated by the president.

If that’s the case, then we urge the media—especially headline writers—to stop referring to “Obama’s health care plan” or to “Obama’s health care overhaul.” Better to call it Congress’s health plan.

We also suggest that reporters begin to pin the president down on what kind of reform he really wants. The AP reported that Obama had ruled out any tax increases for the middle class. But does that mean people making more than $250,000 will be taxed on insurance benefits from their employers? If so, will those taxes generate enough cash to subsidize insurance coverage for working people?

The one we really want to hear about, though, is the individual mandate. There’s been hardly a word written or spoken about it in the media, and it’s pretty clear such a mandate will be part of the deal. After all, making everyone carry insurance is the only way that insurance companies will agree to cover sick people. The public needs to know—and soon—how this requirement will affect their pocketbooks. Flowery words only go so far.

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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.