It’s not clear what the public took away from the PBS NewsHour segment on health care last night. Perhaps confusion, or perhaps nothing that would help their understanding of the Second Battle of Health Reform. The segment featured a bit of reporting by the NewsHour’s health reporter, Betty Ann Bowser, and anchor Judy Woodruff questioning a grinning dueling duo of congressmen—Republican Dan Lungren from California and Anthony Weiner of New York. But neither Bowser’s reporting nor Woodruff’s interview did much to clear up the misinformation and deceptive comments made by both combatants.
Bowser set the tone with predictive commentary from Republican supporters of repealing the health care law and from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, obviously opposing it. Then Bowser picked up the administration’s pre-vote propaganda piece, reporting that a study from HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’s shop “found as many as 129 million Americans under age 65 have preexisting conditions and could be rejected for coverage if the law is repealed.” The insurance industry, Bowser noted, said the numbers were exaggerated.
The NewsHour should have known better. Yes, millions of Americans do have health problems that disqualify them for insurance in the individual market. But most of those people are covered under their employers’ policies, where it doesn’t matter how sick they are. The current restrictions matter only in the individual market where fewer than 20 million Americans now get coverage. After the law is fully effective, millions of sick people will still get coverage from their employers. The insurers have a point here. Geez. It would have been nice had the NewsHour acknowledged that maybe the administration study needed some work.
Woodruff, for her part, let the dueling duo spout off without pinning them down when they didn’t answer her questions or offered misleading, off-point comments. She asked Lungren for evidence that health reform is a job killer, as Republicans argue. He replied that not a single economist thinks raising taxes in the midst of an economic downturn is a good idea and that the government is looking at more than 200 major companies “who have asked for waivers saying that they cannot go forward with what’s imposed on them under this bill, lest they lose jobs. If, in fact, it doesn’t have the effect of killing jobs, those waivers wouldn’t be requested. And, in fact, we wouldn’t have the secretary suggesting that they be done.”
Whoa! Those waivers were all about businesses and insurers offering mini-med policies—the kind with skimpy benefits that don’t meet the mimimum standards set by the new law. That was supposed to be a protection for consumers. But insurers, union health plans, and employers petitioned HHS to continue selling these policies using the logic that some coverage is better than none. HHS agreed. Too bad the NewsHour didn’t use some logic of its own and correct Lungren. Instead Woodruff turned to Weiner for his take on job killing. He argued that the tax subsidy in the law helps create jobs.
But the uninsured going to emergency rooms seemed to be Weiner’s real talking point. In answering Woodruff’s question, Weiner said that if we don’t cover people “they just go into hospital emergency rooms and pass along the costs to taxpayers in California and taxpayers in New York.” A drag on the economy, he added. Woodruff asked Weiner to talk about the costs of providing coverage for the uninsured. “It’s much less expensive to have them get insurance than it is to keep paying their bills in emergency rooms,” he told viewers.
The NewsHour blew it once more. As Campaign Desk reported last summer, emergency room use has increased in Massachusetts even though almost every resident now has insurance under the state’s mandate. We also praised an AP story for making the point that ER use will likely grow under health reform, bringing more crowding and longer waits. The NewsHour missed a chance to clear up a common misconception. The uninsured are not the culprits in emergency rooms usage. A few years ago, a solid study from the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Actuarial Research Corp. found that those without insurance were no more likely to use the ERs than those with coverage.