Selling Health Reform the Obama Way

Beware the “slob-lock"

It’s tough to sell the virtues of health reform what with all those Republicans and Tea Partiers aghast at what the law of the land will and will not do. The word “law” brings up one problem that has administration wordsmiths in a tizzy. Richard Sorian, who is the assistant secretary for public affairs at HHS—aka the agency’s chief spin doctor—says that too many of the law’s supporters are still calling it a “bill.” “It’s not a bill…to overturn it would be changing the law. And it’s not a new law. It’s been working for ten months now,” Sorian chided advocates at a recent gathering of the Herndon Alliance, an umbrella group that set reform in motion a few years back.

With that taken care of, Sorian implored advocates to start using the warm, fuzzy anecdotes that illustrate what good the law has done for some folks, primarily the young adults who can stay on their parents’ insurance policies a little longer; a few million seniors who got a check for $250 to whittle down their tab for expensive medicines; and sick people with fat wallets who can pay the high premiums in their expanded state risk pools.

“In 2011, we will be coming out with more reports about how the law is helping Americans, but we need you guys to find the stories to go along with the numbers,” Sorian said. Presumably the advocates in attendance will comply with stories from their anecdote banks.

The most effective messages are the ones many Americans can identify with. So what did Sorian have in mind? “We found out that people are stuck in ‘slob-lock’ where they remain married to someone they aren’t crazy about because the marriage provides them with health insurance benefits. People can relate to that,” he said. They might stay married for other economic reasons, too. So I guess the message for them is ‘Hang tough for another three years, because in 2014, if all goes well, you can buy your own policy when the individual mandate goes into effect.’

What’s the takeaway for reporters, now that we know the Dems are on a sales offensive to fight the Republican messaging campaign? Remember, this was the crew—pols and advocates—who dutifully stayed on message during the presidential campaign and long reform debate, repeating the cries of “affordable, quality health care,” which the crowds believed they were getting until they saw this year’s premiums.

The administration has a fair point about law vs. bill. It’s a law and we should call it that. That positive spin stuff, though, is problematic. Reporters should not be passing along happy stories supplied by some advocacy group ginned up by HHS officials—the pre-selected anecdotes fashioned to send a message from the health care poo-bahs. We have long urged the media to do a better job of connecting with their audiences, and, yes, personal stories are a way to do that. But while there have been health reform successes, not everyone has benefited from the law. In a story discussing how different people have fared under reform, the AP reported that one of the people profiled who died might not have benefited from the Medicaid expansion the law calls for. “Whether he had Medicaid or not, he still would have received poor people’s health care,” explained the director of one nonprofit organization.

Telling Medicare beneficiaries exactly what’s in store for them is better journalism than passing along administration hype about some eighty-year old who got a $250 check. We haven’t heard much about how small businesses are doing with the new tax credit the law gave them. “I haven’t gotten feedback that it’s been a great win,” the head of the small business trade association in Massachusetts told me. Spinmeisters probably won’t be talking much about the individual mandate. The opposition is, though, and that provision is the center focus of the legal challenges swirling about the law. As Campaign Desk pointed out many times, the media ignored the mandate during the debate. We still think the public deserves some good explanations. Effective messaging from the media, you might say.

And that “slob-lock” stuff. Cute, huh? But, really, the term is offensive. If Congress passed health reform to help people get out of unhappy marriages, well, then, what can we say?

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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: , , , , ,