NBC News sets good example for Medicare reporting

People perspective leads to clear explanation of impact of proposed changes

As tax and spending talks grind on in Washington, The New York Times tells us Friday that in his latest proposal, President Obama has “embraced $400 billion in savings from Medicare and other entitlements to be worked out next year with no guarantees.”

Guarantees or not, that means the reporters on the Medicare beat will have plenty to report on in the weeks ahead—not just to track the twists and turns in negotiations, but to explain the high stakes for both the nation’s finances and ordinary Americans. So bravo to NBC Nightly News and correspondent Tom Costello for some clear, straightforward explanatory reporting in a Wednesday night segment. Here’s the video:

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Using clever but simple graphics to drive home its story, the network took a people perspective. In other words, it set aside the wonks and the technical jargon and described for seniors now on Medicare and those about to go on the program the implications of some of the changes being discussed—such as raising the age of eligibility to 67 or higher, and making more people with higher incomes pay higher premiums. (Currently about five percent of seniors pay a higher, income-related premium, but Congress could change the law so that a greater percentage of them would pay it for their medical, or Part B, and drug, or Part D, coverage.) Costello also reported that Congress could also raise premiums and perhaps copays for everyone on the program—tens of millions of people.

There wasn’t much of the talking head “he said, she said” stuff for balance, though Tricia Neuman, a senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation who has written in detail about the effects of potential Medicare changes, got the chance to make her points before NBC’s audience of millions. If the government pays less for senior health care, then employers and seniors themselves will likely pay more, resulting in a great big cost shift. Said Neuman: “The government saves money but total costs rise.” So much for bending the cost curve!

Later in the segment, Costello himself made the point that the median income for seniors is about $22,000 a year and “most are already on very tight budgets.” And David Certner, legislative policy director for the AARP, added that his group wants to see improvements that actually lower the cost of health care not simply make seniors pay more. That’s a good jumping off point for NBC’s next Medicare piece—what’s causing the program to consume 13 percent of federal spending that Beltway pols are fretting about, and who should bear the burden of confronting that challenge.

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Ask Obama This: Will we have to be older to get Medicare?

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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: ,