Repealing the Health Law

Symbol or grand strategy?

The recent stories about Republican efforts to repeal the health reform law all telegraphed the same story lines. One: the repeal bill passed as expected, but the gesture was entirely symbolic. Two: the vote makes good on Republican promises during the mid-term elections to repeal a law that roughly half of all Americans don’t like. That gives them something to campaign on next time around. Three: the bill will go nowhere and may not even come up for a vote in the Senate, where majority leader Harry Reid has vowed to stop it.

After that, most stories turned to mush—filler that mostly rehashed polling results, the lawsuits challenging the law’s requirement that nearly every American carry health insurance, and other odd tidbits. Most news outlets loaded their stories with quotes—ranging from the ridiculous to misleading.

Some of the quotes were downright silly. In an AP story, California Democrat George Miller said repealing the law would return power to insurance companies. “There is no more bureaucratic system.” Not quite sure the insurers have lost any power because of reform, and the law does nothing to make them less bureaucratic. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was quoted in a piece on the ABC News website saying: “By completing that great unfinished business of our society, now patients and their doctors are in charge of their health, not insurance companies.” But the law still permits insurers to limit office visits for services, and decide whether or not to pay for treatments that are experimental.

Some pols followed the script written by GOP pollster Frank Luntz. In an AP story, Sandy Adams of Florida opined that “the American people have soundly, soundly rejected the Democrats’ government takeover of health care.” Her colleague, Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, called the law a “job killing, socialistic approach to health care. And Rep. Billy Long, a newly elected Republican from Missouri, said the people he has heard from “want out of the trap of government-run health care.”

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said: “People talk about repeal as political theater or symbolism. It isn’t symbolic to the 149 million Americans with health conditions who now are locked out or priced out of the market.” Campaign Desk tackled that claim yesterday. One hundred forty nine million Americans may have preexisting conditions that make them ineligible for insurance in the individual market. But locked out? No sir. Most have coverage from their employers, which almost always permits all workers on the job to get insurance, even if they are sick.

Tea Party darling Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota Republican, got her quotes picked up, too. Bloomberg reported that Bachmann called the health law “the crown jewel of socialism,” adding “It’s socialized medicine.” Bachmann’s other memorable quote: “This is not symbolic. This is why we were sent here.”

A story by David Lightman of McClatchy Newspapers went further than most, delving a bit into what might perhaps be the Republicans’ real strategy—axing certain parts of the health reform law that various constituents don’t like. He discussed repealing the individual mandate, giving arguments on both sides. For his next story, I hope he discusses alternatives to the mandate that some people, including Jamie Court of the California advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, argue might be more palatable.

Lightman did give McClatchy readers a taste of what provisions might be on the chopping block. One is the provision that restricts insurance companies from selling individual policies across state lines, not just in states where they are licensed. “Republicans are eager to break down those state barriers, and their plan is expected to be a top priority,” he reported. A little context here: Big insurers want this one. The former CEO of Aetna called it an essential ingredient for reform, and John McCain endorsed the idea during his campaign.

Politico reported that the insurance industry and Big Phrma were lying low on the repeal measure, holding back their lobbying guns for a more appropriate time and an issue with gravitas for them. That should be a clue.

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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: , , , , ,