CNNMoney.com quoted from a letter that AMA president James Rohack sent his members about their options—including not treating new Medicare patients and leaving the Medicare program. According to CNN, physicians are asking the AMA to prepare handouts they can give to patients to prepare them for the worst-case scenario—getting dropped completely. CNN also tells us that the American Association of Neurological Surgeons is on the case. The association has done a survey showing that 65 percent of its 3,400 members said they were referring Medicare patients to other doctors, and 60 percent were reducing the number of Medicare beneficiaries that they would treat. One New York neurosurgeon said that consumers should prepare for some difficult days ahead.
Even a station in Brunswick County, North Carolina picked up the doctors’ lament. WECT based its story on the comments of the pediatrician who is president of the Brunswick County Medical Society. He said that everyone can make a difference in their health care coverage by calling local lawmakers.
Except for BusinessWeek, which made a small attempt to give another point of view, the stories ignored those who might want to talk about the cuts in a larger context—the effort to contain out-of-control medical costs. It would have been helpful had the stories reflected the reasons for the cuts, what they mean in terms of health reform, and how the AMA and the physician specialty associations have used the same lobbying tactics before to stop planned cuts.
A couple of months ago we saw the same kind of scary stories when the American College of Cardiology embarked on a media crusade to get the press to help them out. The cardiologists issued press releases to media outlets around the country featuring juicy quotes from local doctors about the grave consequences that were about to befall heart patients living in their areas. Campaign Desk pointed out that the stories sparked by the cardiologists were similarly one-sided and little more than PR for the docs. The Naples Daily News—yes, the same paper that Friday reported on worried and frustrated doctors, gave readers the same kind of story when the heart doctors wanted more money. Twice in a row? It’s not clear whether the paper knows or cares about the difference between flackery and balanced reporting.
In the summer of 2005, Luke Shockman, who at the time was the health reporter for the Toledo Blade, posed a question on the listserv of the Association of Health Care Journalists. Shockman wanted help finding someone other than a doctor to interview about the planned fee cuts for physicians. At the time, the AMA was in the midst of its successful House Calls campaign to news organizations: visiting editorial boards, taking out ads, and holding press conferences to convince reporters that fee cuts were not warranted. AHCJ asked the larger question: How do journalists perform their role as educators of the public without playing into the hands of the special interests—in this case, doctors who want more money from a program facing long-term financial problems. That is still the question.