Baucus Watch, Part III

Montana reporter digs deep into the senator’s white paper

As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Senator Max Baucus holds the keys to health-care reform; any health-care legislation must pass through his committee. So what he says or doesn’t say is important to those following the twists and turns of the congressional effort to fix our health-care system. This is the third of an occasional series of posts on the senator’s pronouncements and how the media has covered them. The entire series is archived here.

A laurel to Mike Dennison, a Montana statehouse reporter for Lee Newspapers, who for months has kept an eye on Sen. Max Baucus as he has tried to position himself as Mr. Health Care II, stealing turf from Mr. Health Care I, Sen. Edward Kennedy, whose name has been linked with the issue for decades. Two stories written as columns, which ran in the Billings Gazette, the Missoulian, the Helena Independent Record, and the Montana Standard a few days ago, are examples of the kind of careful, everyday, explanatory journalism that has been absent from health care reportage this year.

When Baucus released his 89-page white paper in mid-November, offering a potpourri of suggestions and a long recitation of the system’s ills, the news media clapped their hands and promoted this message: Here was an important senator demonstrating his commitment to change. Bravo! Way to go! Good work!

The hype soon moved to the blogosphere, where commentators made the same points while not really bothering to kick Baucus’s tires. Dennison decided to do just that, and set out to find sources who would talk on the record about both the positive and negative parts of the Baucus white paper. “People in Montana are reluctant to criticize Baucus publicly,” Dennison told me. “People like him. He is popular and has a lot of stature. After looking at what people were saying here and nationally, I decided to use my own voice and critique it myself.”

In his first column, Dennison tells readers that “we should be clear about what it’s not and what it does not do.” Baucus’s white paper doesn’t support “universal coverage” or “universal health care,” he says, which means it doesn’t call for basic health coverage for everyone, regardless of ability to pay. He summarizes arguments made by Baucus staffers who say that, in several years, the senator’s blueprint might bring us closer to universal coverage. Then he makes an observation that few in the media have made—that the Baucus approach, as well as those of all the Democratic presidential candidates, “relies on the private, for-profit insurance market to fill some big gaps, something it hasn’t done after decades of being in business.”

Dennison notes that the Baucus paper offers few ideas for controlling rising health care costs and “plops another mishmash of new rules, regulations and bureaucracy” on top of our “fragmented, expensive system,” “all in the name of maintaining the private, for-profit insurance market.” In sum, Dennison writes, Baucus’s white paper “seems to bend over backwards to preserve much of the status quo—a status quo that just about everyone agrees is badly broken.”

In his second column, Dennison dares to talk about single-payer coverage, an option that has been omitted from this year’s health care discourse. He tells readers how such a system would work, and debunks major criticisms of a national health insurance approach:

Higher taxes? Not if single-payer all but eliminates the health insurance premiums that you and your employer currently pay. Big government? In America, the government is the people, and you tell it what to do. It has to be more responsive than big insurance. Less choice? With single-payer, no doctors or hospitals are out of the network, because there is no network. It’s one system. Everyone gets the same basic care.

Dennison says that Baucus has declared the single-payer option “off the table;” it is “not politically feasible” because the public won’t go for it. What that means, Dennison explains, is that Baucus and his colleagues don’t want to fight with some of the country’s most powerful financial interests, which have the money and motivation to turn public opinion against what Dennison calls “meaningful reforms.”

What do his readers think? Dennison told me that the dominant response has been positive. People want to know more about single-payer. They want the (information) void filled. “Several said they were glad I wrote about this. Please tell us more,” he added. Some readers, however, called him a socialist or a communist. Look for his follow-up this weekend, talking about reader response.

News outlets once routinely published these kinds of reporter notebook stories, news analyses, and explainers. Think of the late R.W. Apple of The New York Times, who distilled complicated political issues into pieces that made sense for the average reader. I looked forward to his pieces. Dennison’s columns remind me of Johnny Apple, and why we need more of his kind of journalism.

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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.