Since the beginning of the presidential campaign, I have found scant coverage of how real people would fare under the kind of reform envisioned by the health-care cognoscenti. In fairness, until June there was no bill to measure. But we have known enough about what was coming that it should have prompted some reporting along these lines. What will happen, for instance, to the owner of a South Bronx taco restaurant who finds he must pay thousands of dollars for insurance or face severe penalties for not being insured? Or to the factory worker who must pay taxes on her health insurance, just as her employer makes her pay more for fewer benefits?
In the fall of 1993, I wrote in CJR: “So far, neither the press nor the Clintons have built a consensus among the people who have to use whatever system Washington rebuilds.” The same is true today. Neither Obama nor the press have built a consensus for reform. It’s hard to assemble one when the public doesn’t know what reform actually means. An engineering doctoral student from the University of California at Berkeley and a Manhattan hairdresser recently asked me the same question: What is single-payer? And last spring, my journalism students at CUNY asked people on the streets of New York what they knew about the differences between a public-plan option and private insurance. “I didn’t know there is a difference,” one said. Another added: “Public, everybody knows about it; private, nobody does.”
President Obama says he wants a bill by October, so the press still has a chance to help the rest of us make sense of these crucial policy decisions. But they will have to do it quickly. It really is Groundhog Day for health-care reform.