Bad News, Bad Story

How about some clarity from the AP?

I know news stories are getting shorter. But an Associated Press health care story last week did a disservice to readers with its incomplete and convoluted brevity. The gist of the story was that health insurance copayments and deductibles are rising again; in the lede, it cited a study by Mercer, the benefits consulting firm: “A survey being released Thursday by the Mercer consulting firm found 59 percent of companies intend to keep down rising health care costs in 2009 by raising workers’ deductibles, copays or out-of-pocket spending limits.”

A quick read implies that companies are going to reduce health care costs. Geez, everyone wants health care costs to come down, and how the candidates plan to tackle those costs is central to health reform. What the AP didn’t say (and should have) is that companies are reducing their costs of insuring their workers. Yes, employers’ premiums are lowered, but the basic cost of medical treatment is not; in fact, that cost continues to rise. The AP missed the key point: higher copays and deductibles simply shift the rising costs to employees, who may turn to the AP to learn what’s behind these hikes. The total cost of health care remains the same, unless workers forgo medical treatment—which is what some health care gurus have suggested as a kind of a cost containment strategy.

Instead of amplifying all this for readers, the AP instead interviewed a spokesperson from America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the insurers’ trade association, who said that health plans are trying to curb costs by offering choices such as disease management plans and “incentives for greater use of prescription drugs,” as the AP put it. Incentives to use more drugs? Let’s get real here. Is that what the spokesman meant, or did the AP forget to add the word “generic” in its quest for brevity? As for disease management programs, the story should have explained, as we at CJR have, that it is unclear whether these programs actually save money or improve care. Readers deserve to know that.

Mercer’s survey found that 47 percent of companies are encouraging enrollment in health plans with lower premiums and higher deductibles, and that 19 percent will start offering them. Now, having written about these arrangements, I know how hard it is to explain them in plain English and still convey what they will and won’t do. But this sentence near the end of the story really threw me: “They encourage employees to consider costs when by letting them save account money they don’t spend for future needs.”

Unless I’m missing something, clear writing and good editing haven’t yet gone out of style.

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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.