Medicare Versus Obamacare

The fight begins in Florida

In the last few days, three mainstream news outlets elevated “Medicare: The Political Story” into the headlines. It was good to see that The New York Times, PBS’s Need To Know, and Reuters, all of which reach large audiences, have realized Medicare may be the most important health story of the campaign. (Yes, perhaps more important than the Supreme Court’s ruling on the individual mandate.) During the 2008 campaign, as Campaign Desk pointed out at the time, the candidates ignored Medicare. It was not a winning issue, their advisers advised.

This year is different. Both the GOP and the Dems see Medicare as political hay. New York congressman Steve Israel, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told the Times Medicare would be a “defining issue in the 2012 elections.” At stake is the future of Medicare and whether it will remain a social insurance program, with the government providing coverage for all seniors who receive the same basic benefit, or become a private insurance system, with Aetna, Cigna, and their cousins selling individual coverage for seniors. Like Social Security, Medicare has become a third rail of politics, and the three news outlets made that clear.

As political journalism, all three stories were workmanlike and made some important points. The Times told how the Dems, led by Rep. Israel, would attack the Republicans. Borrowing a page from Republican wordsmith Frank Luntz, Israel said he was advising candidates that, at every opportunity, they should mention “the following three issues in alphabetical order and in order of priority: Medicare, 1; Medicare, 2; and Medicare, 3.” Democrats see Medicare as a political gift, the Times’s Robert Pear reported. So do Republicans, who are ready for the assault and will respond by repeating criticism of President Obama’s health care overhaul. Paul A. Lindsay, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, told Pear:

If House Democrats want to engage in debate about Medicare, we are happy to remind them about $500 billion in Medicare cuts they made to pay for their government takeover of health care.

Need to Know focused on Florida as a Medicare battleground state because of its huge population of seniors. Correspondent Jeff Greenfield interviewed two men—Ed, a Democrat, and Bert, a Republican. Both see mostly “eye-to-eye” on Medicare, Greenfield reported; they like Medicare and know they need it, a point reinforced by seventy-year-old Carol Ann Loehndorf, who said she would never be able to get health insurance if it weren’t for Medicare. “It makes an enormous difference in your life,” she told Greenfield, adding she doesn’t understand why people want to do away with it.

Greenfield inserted other points of view by getting his subjects—seniors themselves—to express them. When Greenfield asked about means-testing, Bert replied he didn’t think the Warren Buffetts of the world should get Medicare. He also presented the Gerbers—mom and son. Thirty-three-year-old Bradley Gerber, a PR exec who heads the Miami Young Republicans, said that Medicare Social Security is “sort of a pyramid scheme.”* His sixty-three-year-old mother, Rowena, a school teacher and a Republican, saw things differently. “I did contribute and don’t feel I am taking advantage of it,” she said.

At the end of the show, Need To Know’s former co-host, Jon Meacham, offered what appeared to be the program’s political slant. “For America to put its fiscal and political matters in order, we know there will have to be a reckoning over the costs of social insurance,” Meacham argued. “Gradual but real changes in benefits that move us toward a more sustainable future is the wise thing to do.” Meacham did not get into another proposed solution—increasing taxes to adequately fund Medicare benefits—although Ed, the Democrat, said he favored everyone paying an extra 2 percent to take up the slack.

Reuters made the point that Medicare was toxic to Florida politicians. Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine, told Reuters “The last thing that I would do if I was campaigning in Florida is even hint that something might happen to Medicare. The word wouldn’t even cross my lips.” Well, if that’s the case, voters will be kept in the dark about what the pols would do once they got into office. And it certainly does little to illuminate the differing views for the future of one of the country’s most successful social programs—views voters should be clear about as they make up their minds.

Now that large outlets have anointed Medicare politics as legitimate news, we’ll probably see a lot more similar stories. That’s fine, but a diet of nothing but political stories shortchanges the public, since those stories omit crucial information about what Medicare is and what opponents want it to become. Reporters could, for instance, discuss the GOP’s “cuts to Medicare argument,” which was poorly covered by the press in the midterm elections. They could answer questions like “what is Medicare anyway” and “how does it work.” Those basics will go a long way to understanding the politics of Medicare in Florida, and everywhere else.

Correction: This piece originally reported that thirty-three-year-old Bradley Gerber, in an interview with Need to Know correspondent Jeff Greenfield, called Medicare a “pyramid scheme.” In fact, he called Social Security a pyramid scheme, and said nothing about Medicare. The relevant sentence has been corrected. CJR regrets the error.

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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. Tags: , , , , , ,