Huckabee on Health

How about some details, Mike?

Candidate Mike Huckabee walked into the Oscar Frazier Community Center in Bluffton, South Carolina, the other day and charmed a crowd of AARP members with his easy manner and string of jokes emblematic of his campaign. When the talk turned to health care, the Island Packet reported that Huckabee “urged a revolutionary overhaul of the country’s health care system,” saying that a “Humpty-Dumpty philosophy” of waiting until Americans fall off the wall before insurance will pay is “insanity.” He likened America to “an NFL football game on Sunday afternoon. There are plenty of people down on the field in desperate need of rest, but several thousand in the stands are in desperate need of exercise.”

By revolutionary did Huckabee mean marching fans down to the field and ordering them to run between the goal posts? The Island Packet, a McClatchy newspaper serving South Carolina’s coastal counties, didn’t amplify much for its readers other than to say that Huckabee “supports a preventive approach that would empower Americans to design their own health insurance plans with provisions that pay for nutritionist visits or gym memberships.” Well and good, but does that mean turning ordinary folks into actuaries as they run off to diet consultants and personal trainers?

According to The Wall Street Journal, such vagueness and ambiguity may be just what the candidate wants, and when journalists don’t pin him down or do a little digging on their own to offer more meat, they play right into the campaign script. In an illuminating piece, the Journal described Huckabee’s MO as giving boilerplate summaries of his beliefs and then moving “ever so swiftly on to the next question.” It’s when he’s pressed for details,” the paper wrote, “that things get dodgy.”

Indeed they do. The New Hampshire Business Review tried pressing Huckabee and the other Republican candidates for details on a variety of issues. Health care was first on the list. It asked for only 150-word summaries, barely enough to telegraph the headlines of their proposals but perhaps sufficient for readers to get a whiff of where they would go if elected. Huckabee (along with Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuilani) refused to respond “despite repeated requests,” the Business Review wrote.

For the record, here’s what Huckabee’s “revolutionary” overhaul of the system would do. The Kaiser Family Foundation, which has compiled summaries of all the candidates’ health care proposals, says he would use tax deductions and tax credits to encourage people to buy private insurance on their own and encourage other market-based solutions to problems of cost and access. President Bush supported this approach during the last campaign. Other Republicans do now. Huckabee opposes “universal health care mandated by federal edict.” His plan has no provision to expand public programs like Medicaid, doesn’t call for subsidies to employers to help them buy policies for their workers, and calls for no insurance pooling arrangements to make it easier for sick people to get coverage. But he wants to make health-savings accounts more available and allow states to act as laboratories for market-based approaches to coverage. This is a policy, but not a revolutionary one.

How much more useful the Island Packet’s story would have been had it summarized Huckabee’s proposals for readers instead of letting him rattle on about a health-care revolution that isn’t.

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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.