All this cried out for more explanation, a point made by a blogger, R. Neal, on the website of KnoxViews (“Progressive citizen media for East Tennessee”). Neal noted that Corker’s plan begins to privatize Medicare, much like the proposals made by vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan would, and he asked in a post, “Maybe a policy expert can explain how ‘Total Health’ [Corker’s program for private plans] is different from the existing Medicare Advantage?”

That’s a good question for The Tennessean, the state’s principal newspaper, which so far hasn’t gotten too deeply into the nitty-gritty of Corker’s bill. In a piece published a few weeks before the fiscal cliff deal, the paper presented a longish account that framed some of Corker’s ideas as a political dogfight—conservative Republican issues versus liberal Democratic ones. The lede:

Advocacy groups and prominent congressional Democrats continue to take aim at Republican Sen. Bob Corker’s proposals to raise eligibility ages for the nation’s two biggest entitlement programs, Social Security and Medicare.

There was a lot of he said/she said in the piece, which gave a few bullet points of Corker’s proposal. Readers got brief views from those who like the proposals and from those who don’t, as well as what Tennessee’s other members of Congress think about it. Democrat Rep. Jim Cooper doesn’t like raising the Medicare eligible age because it shifts costs to seniors. Republicans Marsha Blackburn and Diane Black “dodged questions about eligibility age,” The Tennessean reported. As for Corker, the paper said he remained “unfazed” by the negative feedback from critics. “Medicare and Social Security are both headed to insolvency, and the longer we wait to put in place solutions, the more limited and draconian the options become,” he said.

Insolvent? The paper needed to explain that both Medicare and Social Security will have money to pay out most benefits even after the dates that “insolvency” is supposed to happen. Under current conditions, Social Security is good until 2033, and after that it, given no tax or benefit adjustments, can pay out about 75 percent of benefits. Medicare’s hospital trust fund is OK under current conditions to 2024, and after that it can pay out 87 percent of expected benefits. At least, the Bristol Herald Courier’s site for northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia, made that point.

The right words and what they mean are crucial in reporting on these programs—especially when the pols want to soften or even disguise what they’re doing. When Corker was pitching his plan at the end of the year, a reporter suggested the plan equals Medicare “cuts.” Politico reported that Corker corrected the journo, saying he preferred to use the word “reforms.” Orwellian speak is alive and well.

Related content:

Medicare ‘bankruptcy’: CNN gets it right

Medicare, Paul Ryan, and beyond: a primer

Medicare Uncovered: the pain from ‘skin in the game’


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.