The “Government Takeover of Health Care” Is Baaaack!

Chris Christie waves the bloody shirt

A “government takeover of health care” is back. At least it is in the mind of New Jersey governor Chris Christie. In an interview with talk radio show host Dom Giordano, the governor, who supports Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, dished out strong clues about how Republicans are going to fight the health reform law. The weapon of choice: Frank Luntz’s focus-group tested messages. On the show Christie showed he was in sync with Romney’s defense of the Massachusetts reform law, which Romney’s administration supported and which later became the model for national reform. But to distance himself from the federal law, Romney has said what was good for Massachusetts at the time may not be good for the rest of the country. And Christie has said that what happened in the Bay State “would not be good for New Jersey.”

On the show, Christie urged the president to tell the truth about the reform law. What truth would Christie tell?

I’d say to the president, in Massachusetts, we didn’t propose to raise taxes, as you proposed to raise taxes a trillion dollars to pay for a government takeover of health care…. Ninety-three percent of the people in Massachusetts had private insurance then and have private insurance now. That’s not what’s gonna happen under Obamacare. It’s gonna be a government takeover of health care.

Really, Governor? As Campaign Desk has repeatedly noted, the health reform law does not call for a government takeover of health care. The law simply brings private insurance to people who are uninsured. You know, the kind sold by those giants of the American insurance business—UnitedHealth Group, Blue Cross, Cigna, and Humana—which just posted a large profit gained mostly from selling private Medicare Advantage plans to seniors. Under the health law, uninsured Americans will get private insurance like the rest of us have, but many will get government subsidies to help pay for it—subsidies like farmers get to help with their businesses. Yes, there will be some rules and regulations imposed on insurance sellers—they won’t be able to turn down people who have health conditions, and the states will manage the exchanges or shopping services where policies will be offered by Aetna et al. For doctors and hospitals, it will pretty much be business as usual. That is not a government takeover. The government won’t be offering insurance, or own hospitals or physician practices.

The fact checkers at PolitiFact weighed in on the “government takeover” assertion, reporting that Christie “was repeating a claim that’s been debunked numerous times by various news organizations.” PolitiFact noted that the claim won its 2010 Lie of the Year award. The term “government takeover” has been used so often it has come to frame the political discourse around the health law. Campaign Desk has urged the media to pin down the pols when they use this term, but what happens when reporters or talk show hosts don’t do that? Host Giordano seemed sympathetic to Christie’s claims. “The individual mandate sticks in my craw,” he told listeners.

The politicians continue to use the phrase because it’s effective. A few days ago, the Kaiser Family Foundation released its latest tracking survey, which showed that public support for the law hit an all-time low. Fifty-one percent of the public opposes the law; thirty-four percent supports it. Even Democrats are moving into the oppose column. Some pollsters suggest that Obama and co. didn’t sell the law very well. Perhaps. But the anti-sales job may have been the trump card, despite press efforts to lay out the facts. Perhaps the term “government takeover of health care” is so deeply ingrained in the American psyche that better ways of explaining the real story are needed from the press.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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: , , , , ,