The Times Misses the Mark

A health care lobbyist puff piece that goes nowhere

What could The New York Times have been thinking when it fronted a piece the other day serving up some personal tidbits about two major health care lobbyists—Billy Tauzin for the pharmaceutical manufacturers and Karen Ignagni for the insurance companies. Was it a health care celebrity piece a la People, or just another horse-race story?

Whatever it was supposed to be, the story didn’t help people understand its apparent thesis—that these two star lobbyists are working overtime to prevent their pact with the Obama administration from unraveling. Readers of these posts may recall that Obama made a deal with the hospitals, doctors, drug companies, and insurers to produce cost savings that could be used to help the uninsured buy health insurance.

The drug makers agreed to sell brand name drugs at a discount to those stuck in Medicare’s so-called donut hole (where really sick seniors now have no government-provided drug coverage). In return, the administration agreed to some big concessions. It would oppose importing cheaper drugs from other countries; it would oppose negotiations for lower drug prices under Medicare; it would oppose shifting payment for infusion drugs now administered at home under Medicare Part B to Part D, which means drug companies would continue to get paid more. The House bill, it seems, calls for Medicare price negotiations, so no wonder Tauzin is on the march.

For their part, insurers agreed to accept all comers in the individual market—yes, even those near death—as long as all Americans had to buy insurance, thus bringing in enough healthy souls whose premiums would offset the expenses incurred by those who are sick. To reel in enough healthy folks, the penalties for not getting insurance must be stiff. That presents a dilemma for members of Congress. If they make the penalties too tough, the voters might take their revenge in the next election.

The print version of the Times story did not discuss exactly what deal Tauzin was trying to keep intact, a point I would argue is rather important. An online version linked to a previous Times story that reported on the administration’s secret deal with the drug makers, noting that the president had moved away from ideas like government price negotiations and importing cheaper drugs from Canada, which he supported during the campaign. But in places where the unlinked Times story ran, like the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, readers were none the wiser.

The puff and fluff from the Times glossed over the insurers’ grand bargain. It simply reported that they would take people with preexisting conditions, end lifetime caps on coverage, and simplify record keeping. No mention of the caveats here—the fact they can still discriminate against older people by charging them a lot more than younger people; or that there are ways insurers can weasel out of the promised unlimited lifetime coverage.

Instead, we got personality, and lots of it. Meet the wily “swamp fox” Billy Tauzin, “who relishes his image as a rascal, a charmer and a Cajun raconteur.” Learn how the daughter of a Rhode Island fireman rose from working class beginnings to become the nation’s top insurance lobbyist and who, by the way, is considered a “phony” by some. Understand that the “two association chiefs have a kind of trust-but-verify relationship.” And don’t forget how much they are paid.

The Times trotted out a cliché that editors should long ago have buried—the word “eye-popping,” used to describe monumental stats of all kinds. This time, the paper of record used it to portray the salaries earned by Tauzin and Ignagni—more than $2 million in his case; $1.6 million in hers. “Eye-popping,” said the Times, even by the “standards of K Street,” which raises another question: How many readers know that K Street is shorthand for the Washington lobbying crowd?

At the risk of being guilty myself, how about some eye-popping reporting? In this story, there wasn’t much.

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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.