In a series of blog posts for the Columbia Journalism Review, CJR Contributing Editor Trudy Lieberman takes the press to task for its under-coverage of both candidates' proposals for health insurance reform. And she explains why Obama's plan is neither 'national' nor 'universal.'
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The price of oil is one story where the media gets stuck on a couple of key words — in that case, supply and demand. Health care reform is another such issue. If Barack Obama is elected president, he says he'll push for a national healthcare plan, or even a universal plan. [CLIP] BARACK OBAMA: We are going to pass a universal healthcare bill. It is long overdue. The time is ripe. [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: The media have also called his plan “national” or “universal.” Trudy Lieberman says they should stop, because it isn't. Lieberman, who’s director of the Health and Medical Reporting Program at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, has been covering the coverage of the healthcare debate in the Columbia Journalism Review.
She says that the words “national” and “universal” have specific meanings when applied to healthcare plans. Basically, they refer to plans that already exist in Europe, where TRUDY LIEBERMAN: Everybody is covered; everybody’s entitled to care because they are citizens of those countries. And, everybody pays for them through a various system of taxes.
What we have here in this country is the candidates have tried to shoehorn those labels onto their own proposals, which means something very different.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what does it mean? TRUDY LIEBERMAN: Essentially, what Obama would like to do is craft a plan that builds on private insurance coverage from Aetna, Cigna, Blue Cross and the like, and add to that a public program, a national insurance exchange people might be able to go to and buy coverage. If this entity, this health insurance exchange works, then people will have another option.
Let me say what the lead of an AP story was that I think came very close to describing what Obama is doing; that Obama was proposing universal access to coverage. Access is the key word, as opposed to automatic coverage as a matter of right. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is the press getting this wrong because the Obama campaign also misuses these words? The Obama webpage says that, "Obama will make available a new national health plan to all Americans." TRUDY LIEBERMAN: I think that’s campaign rhetoric. There have been a number of things Obama has said, including that he doesn't take money from lobbyists, and we've talked a lot about that at CJR. And so I think there’s a tendency to play fast and loose with the words, and I think that’s the case here. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you've also been critical of press coverage of John McCain’s healthcare proposal but for very different reasons. Spell out the bottom line there for us. TRUDY LIEBERMAN: Basically, McCain wants you to pay taxes on the employer provided insurance that you get. And when that happens, he’s going to give tax credits to people, 5,000 dollars for families, 2,500 dollars for individuals, to go into the individual market to buy their own coverage.
It’s likely young, healthy people will leave the employer plan and go into this individual market, leaving only the sick people left in the boss’ insurance, and that will send the premiums through the roof.
What this will do eventually is force a large crack in the employer provided insurance market, and ultimately, people will have to go to the individual market to buy their coverage. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you say that the true implications of McCain’s health plan have not been covered, have been woefully under covered? TRUDY LIEBERMAN: There’s been, very, very little coverage of it. There’s been a line or two that says McCain’s plan is very radical because it could begin to break up the employer market, and that’s as far as it goes. So there needs to be a lot more explanation and exploration about what this is going to mean down the road. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So why do you think the press has fallen down on all of this? Is it just too complicated? TRUDY LIEBERMAN: It’s very complicated. I think the best thing for reporters to do is to find some very good experts and sit down with them. And I think there is the feeling among editors that people really don't want to sit and read a long story or hear a long story about BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Quite an indictment. TRUDY LIEBERMAN: [LAUGHS] — about these very important proposals. Some people are certainly looking to the Internet for more information about this, and the blogosphere is full of it. And some of it’s pretty good. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Who do you think is doing this story well? TRUDY LIEBERMAN: We have seen a lack of coverage of what these proposals actually mean to people. And I have pointed out that a blogger for Glamour Magazine came the closest to doing that, and she put her own healthcare situation in terms of the candidates’ proposals and found that she wouldn't do very well under any of them. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Trudy, thank you very much. TRUDY LIEBERMAN: Thank you. It's nice to be here. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Trudy Lieberman is the director of the Health and Medical Reporting Program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She’s covering the healthcare debate for the Columbia Journalism Review.