It’s not often that the media pay much attention to different versions of a bill when they emerge from the House and Senate and head toward a conference committee. But given the intense interest in health care this year, and the talk coming from the administration and others about the health care provisions embedded deep in the stimulus package, the press could do itself proud by keeping track of the changes and telling their audiences what the differences between the Senate and House versions mean.

The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal are starting to expose some of the differences relating to health information technology and stimulus spending for research that will tell which medical tests and treatments really work. The president wants every American to have an electronic medical record by 2014, and has said that science will again be the prime determinant of which medical treatments really work. Of course, all this is easier said than done. In the Post’s illuminating story, we learn that special interest lobbyists and their coalitions are at it again. What a surprise!

At issue is whether doctors, hospitals, and pharmacies will be allowed to profit from marketing patients’ medical records to drug companies without having to notify the patients. Also at issue is whether providers must obtain patient consent before using medical information for fundraising purposes. Suppose you had heart bypass surgery at Hospital A, and had a good outcome. The hospital development office just might want to know about that, in order to hit you up for donations down the road. The House bill would mandate such consent; the Senate bill would not. “The Senate really did address many of our concerns,” said Mary Grealy, president of the influential Healthcare Leadership Council, a group of hospitals, health plans, drug companies, and device makers.

The Wall Street Journal took aim at the bills’ differing stances on medical effectiveness reviews. Limiting tests and treatments to those that are effective and relatively inexpensive is crucial to controlling the country’s health care spending—and, in a sense, is the key to successful reform. The House bill assigns $700 million for health care “comparative effectiveness research.” The Senate version uses the words “comparative, clinical effectiveness.” Experts say there’s a big difference.

Comparative effectiveness means looking at the costs and benefits, so that if two drugs are equally effective, but one costs less, the cheaper drug should be recommended. The Journal reports that the industry “won a battle to add the word ‘clinical’ in describing the research” that the stimulus spending will fund. Comparative, clinical effectiveness implies that only efficacy should be considered, not the price of the treatment. So you can see why the language of the bills is contentious. It directly impacts the profits made by sellers of these technologies.

Although the differences that deal with privacy and which drugs doctors can use are sexier to write about, and perhaps pack more of an outrage factor, there are important differences when it comes to getting more people covered. Remember—increasing coverage was one of the president’s goals during the campaign. The House was more obliging to the president. By providing 100 percent matching funds, the House bill would encourage states to add people who have lost their jobs in the recession to their Medicaid rolls. Those who are out of work could have Medicaid coverage until 2011, without being subjected to the typical rules that require very low incomes and very few assets. This provision was stripped from the Senate version.

Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and 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. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.