Report from the Tupperware Circuit, Part II

The public vents, the press takes notice

Before Christmas, we urged the press to cover the community meetings called by Obama’s health chief Tom Daschle in order to hear ordinary citizens’ opinions about medical care. Many news outlets, from The New York Times and The Washington Post to the Queens Chronicle and the Herald-Dispatch in Huntington, West Virginia, did just that. Session organizers ran through a list of questions supplied by the Obama team, and attendees got to say what they thought was wrong with the health care system and describe the troubles they had paying medical bills.

From the twenty or so stories we examined, it was clear that those who came to a session did so gladly, in full belief that the President-elect would hear their concerns. “Community meetings, town hall meetings and keeping in touch with people will give the people cause for hope,” said one woman who bought a newspaper ad urging citizens to attend a meeting in Aurora, Illinois.

At a meeting in Las Vegas, a woman named Ruby Waller said she believed Obama was true to his word. “He listens to the grassroots,” she said. What was the grassroots saying?

Based on the reporting we saw, it’s hard to conclude that there was consensus on solutions, but journalists who covered the sessions picked up some important discussion threads. The lede of a New York Times story which reported on a meeting in Vienna, Virginia, sounded a note that was repeated in many other stories:

When a dozen consumers gathered over the weekend to discuss health care at the behest of President-elect Barack Obama, they quickly agreed on one point: they despise health insurance companies.

Waller herself said that a single payer system similar to the Canadian approach might make better sense. “There’s too much profit in health care,” she said. Journalists reported that others around the country made the same points. A clinical psychologist in St. Petersburg, Florida said “we need to move immediately toward a not-for-profit health care system.” Drinda Franzen, from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, said Americans need to realize that when it comes to health care, citizens are not independent, but rather interdependent, adding that “true insurance should pull us together as a group.”

The Flint Journal reported that, at a session organized by HealthCare-NOW, an advocacy group that supports a single payer solution, attendees learned how such a program might work and recognized the obstacles in the way. “We’re up against the medical organizations, the for-profit insurance companies and the drug companies,” explained a retired teacher.

People from those groups had their say, too, and from them came another discussion strand—personal responsibility and some blame-the-victim talk. In Yuma, Arizona, an oncologist said that the country couldn’t afford to pay to fix illnesses that can be prevented by exercising, not smoking, and eating healthier foods. “Those are the types of things that fuel health care costs,” he said. In Temple, Texas, the director of a health program for poor people told fellow attendees that we don’t focus much at all on how we take care of ourselves. Doctors in Queens, New York, complained about malpractice insurance, a perennial physician gripe. An ultrasonography specialist used a mythical creature, Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guards the underworld, to describe the problems doctors face. The heads of the beast, he said, were government, insurance companies, and trial lawyers. Another doctor at that meeting said that people use their health insurance too much. He concluded that “patients think of their insurance card as a credit card.”

The Obama team has asked for reports from these meetings, and Daschle has said the sessions would “lead to members of Congress taking note.” Some attendees were very clear about what they expected. Mildred Lockridge, who came to a session at a wellness center in Washington D.C., warned “if it’s a dog and pony show, they’re going to hear from me. We’ve had too many dog and pony shows.” Chip Kahn, who heads the Federation of American Hospitals, a trade group for the for-profit hospitals, offered this perspective to The Washington Post: “The Obama playbook is to engage everyone as long as they can, try to avoid getting into the details as long as they can. But in health care, details matter.”

Reporters have done the easy part—taking down quotes from people willing to talk. Making sense of the details will be much harder, especially when the players will try to keep them secret. But it will be those details that determine which people who came to the meetings will be heard.

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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.