Tax Credits Explained…Finally

The Salt Lake Tribune takes a deeper view

Tip of the hat to The Salt Lake Tribune for the health care story it ran this week about the uninsured. The piece began like most such stories do—with an anecdote. This one was about Tammy Morgan, the widow of Scott Morgan, an actor who died of AIDS. Her friends had organized a bake sale to help pay more than $30,000 in medical bills her insurance didn’t cover. Whoever is elected president, Morgan told the Tribune, has got to do something about health care because “the cost of this medical insurance is just a joke.”

The story went on to report about the differing approaches to health care with broad strokes about what candidates from both parties would do about it. It then zoomed in on tax credits, noting that GOP hopefuls tout tax credits to help individuals buy insurance. But then it veered into territory where most others outlets haven’t gone: it informed readers that the highly promoted credits work only for those who owe taxes—and that 55 percent of the uninsured in the U.S. don’t.

Which raises the question: how helpful will tax credits really be? In reality, even Democratic candidates are talking about tax credits and federal subsidies to help people buy insurance. But in the campaign so far, the media hasn’t addressed this crucial point. It has let candidates get away with their ‘blah, blah’ tax credit rhetoric—giving audiences the impression that credits just might be the solution for Morgan and countless others.

For journalists wanting to understand more about tax credits, Modern Healthcare tackled the issue more fully than most publications have. A report from The Commonwealth Fund, a New York City philanthropic organization that publishes health policy research, also discusses tax credits. Americans need to know what tax credits will and won’t do, and they will be looking to the media to tell them the whole story.

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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.