LAT a Bit Wide of the Mark on Health Care

The Los Angeles Times’s David Lazarus beats back an accusation of using a red herring—and then goes on to push a bit of a straw man.

He writes about WellPoint, the biggest private health insurer in the country, cutting health benefits for its own employees:

If our biggest private health insurer has to jack up the cost of coverage even for its own workers, there is clearly something seriously wrong with our healthcare system.

Well, lots of companies have trimmed benefits of all kinds, as well as salary—long a no-no—in the crisis and long before it began. Just because a health-care companyWellPoint, like every single other company in the known universe, has trimmed health benefits in the recession doesn’t mean per se that the health-care system is screwed up. It mostly means there’s a major recession going on, the worst in eight decades, and everybody’s getting slammed and cutting costs.

The problem here is readers don’t get any context beyond the fact that WellPoint has made $2 billion this year (not insignificant!). There are no numbers saying how much WellPoint is cutting its coverage. That matters. If it’s 10 percent, say, that’s a lot different than 50 percent. Bloomberg reported more than a month ago that WellPoint covers 82 percent of employees’ health costs, which is better than average by a decent amount.

And anyway, who doesn’t think there’s “something seriously wrong with our healthcare system”? Even if the Republicans’ plan is no good, as Lazarus says, I’m pretty sure not many of them doubt health-care needs reforming, and they for sure wouldn’t say it out loud.

They may not think it’s quite as dire or they may have another way of thinking about a solution. Their plan may be half-assed, but even if it were the silver bullet it wouldn’t have had a snowball’s chance anyway with two Democratic-controlled houses and a Democrat in the White House. That’s politics.

It’s too bad, because Lazarus is right in his point on the Business Roundtable’s lobbying: It is unseemly to lobby against a public health-care plan at the same time you’re tossing hundreds of thousands of workers—and by extension, their families— out on their ears with no coverage.

WellPoint does the same, of course, but that’s not the point made here.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.