The critic from the other side was Max Richtman, who heads the advocacy group the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. Horsley summed up Richtman’s thinking, saying “if anything, he says, the current measure of inflation understates senior’s costs, especially for things like healthcare.” Richtman didn’t do much to illuminate potential problems with the Chained CPI. The story became a political piece—with Richtman saying his members want no part in such a compromise, but without making the case why the Chained CPI might not be good for many of them. Nor did Richtman or Horsley take the story further and explain how that all of this is related to other parts of Obama’s budget that will make them pay more for their healthcare, even with Medicare.

If NPR were really interested in discussing the Chained CPI, this was an opening to discuss one of its major controversies. The idea behind the proposed measure is to allow for the way people substitute cheaper goods and services when prices rise. As we’ve reported, that kind of calculation may not measure the cost of living with as much accuracy as its advocates promote. Healthcare is the biggest expense for many older persons. Half of all Medicare beneficiaries live on $22,000 or less and spend one-third of their household income on healthcare.

Furthermore, you can’t easily substitute one medical procedure for another. If you need a heart bypass, you can’t substitute a hernia operation the way someone can choose chicken instead of steak. Reporters would do well to go talk to some old people of modest means, and see where their money does go. They might be surprised.

Because of these spending patterns, the government has tinkered with developing a special cost-of-living index based on what seniors actually spend their money on. But neither the press nor the politicians have given that effort any prominence, and the government hasn’t devoted enough resources to measuring and testing it. Which is also worth reporting.

So there you have it. Listeners in NPR-land may be as confused as ever about a change that maybe be moving beyond a Beltway story and into people’s lives. Surely NPR can do better helping them understand what the fuss is all about.

The Second Opinion, CJR’s healthcare desk, is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. Follow @USProjectCJR for more posts from this author and the rest of the United States Project team. And follow @Trudy_Lieberman.

Related stories:

Faces the Congress doesn’t see

Medicare Uncovered: Parsing Senator Corker’s big bill

If you'd like to help CJR and win a chance at one of 10 free print subscriptions, take a brief survey for us here.

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.