I next stopped a couple of journalism students, thinking they might be more up on the health law since news, of course, is their business. A twenty-seven-year-old graduate student named Jessica, who would not give her last name, was frank. “I know nothing about the health care law,” she said. “I don’t remember hearing anything about it. Maybe I tuned out because it doesn’t affect me.” She says she has coverage through her husband’s insurance, and has used the coverage only once. I asked her what she read. “The Times online and CNN.com,” she replied. “I weed out what I don’t want to read.”
At first, thirty-three-year-old Joaquin Andrade, a journalism grad student, didn’t want to chat. He was Brazilian—a TV reporter, he said—and thought I should be talking to an American. But the more we chatted, the more it became clear he knew about the U.S. health care law—in fact, he knew much more than the American students in my admittedly small sample. He told me that when he learned he would be coming to the U.S., he had read the news to learn what was happening in the country. He knew the health law passed a year ago, and that if you’re not covered, you will have to be. “I believe the bill has passed but it takes time for the changes to come,” he told me. Bingo. That was spot on. “The insurance companies were mad because it will cost them more money.” Andrade knew from his reading that insurers, at least publicly, were not keen on the law. He had also read about the controversy over mammography, and explained what some of it was about.
All of this is disheartening. Comments like the ones I heard from presumably bright students studying at one of the country’s premier universities about the crowning domestic achievement of the Obama administration have profound implications for those who still believe journalism can perform an educational function. The students have presented a devastating critique of our coverage of health reform. Its message: we need to forget the stories that those with vested interests want us to write. The population is not ready (and clearly not even interested) in stories about the nitty-gritty of who is going to run some state’s insurance exchange, whether a medical home model is up and running, how an accountable care organization may or may not slow down medical cost inflation, or whether an insurer complies with the MLR. The coverage has been too much Politico and too much policy wonk.
Dear colleagues, we have failed the public, a point made again and again by the polls. As the Affordable Care Act enters its second year, it’s time to redefine how to connect with the public in ways that matter to them. That is my birthday wish.