The NewsHour Blows a Health Story

Leaving misconceptions on the table

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many as 129 million Americans under age 65 have preexisting conditions and could be rejected for coverage if the law is repealed.”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.

Woodruff did not mention the individual mandate—a surprise, since it’s the sine qua non of the law and its most controversial provision. Instead she threw Lungren a softball, asking him to name “a few pieces of this that you want to see survive,” and failed to challenge him on what he said. Lungren blabbered about “patient-centered health care” and making sure that the “bureaucracy is not involved in this process,” and then got to that Republican hobby horse:

We have talked about preexisting conditions. In fact, we came forward with a much more vigorous program for having those pooled programs around the country for people with preexisting conditions. We ought to build on that.

Congressman: That’s exactly what the health reform law did. It provided expanded risk pools for hard-to-insure people by giving a bunch of money to the states to ramp up their insurance offerings for sick people. There is just one problem—the expanded pools have yet to score a win. The same affliction that has historically plagued all state risk pools plagues the new ones as well. The premiums they must charge are too damn expensive for most people. Medicare’s chief actuary predicted that about 375,000 people would sign up for the new pools; in early November only 8000 had. Your staff needs to do some homework, and so do researchers and producers at the NewsHour. Your constituents and their viewers deserve better.

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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: , , , , ,