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Talking Health Reform: A Wrap-Up

Talking Health Reform: A Wrap-Up

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We have a guest blogger today: Dan Lee, former Riverside Press-Enterprise reporter and current student at the Annenberg School for Communication, is working for the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships and ReportingonHealth.


By Daniel Lee

Reporters covering the health care reform debate have failed to adequately investigate the claims made by both Democratic and Republican leaders and could do more to focus on its local impacts, experts said Wednesday.

Prominent health policy analyst and consultant Robert Laszewski, who blogs at Health Care Policy and Marketplace Review, said the public's understanding of the issues is poor and filled with "myths." Both Democrats and Republicans have exploited and repeated these myths for political advantage, he said.

"I think one of the problems is the press has done little to help in that regard," Laszewski said. "A side makes a charge, it's repeated. It's never really investigated, it's never worked through so the public can understand what they're saying."

Laszewski spoke during a Sept. 9 online panel discussion sponsored by the Association of Health Care Journalists, Columbia Journalism Review, The Commonwealth Fund and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. It was held just hours before President Barack Obama was scheduled to address a joint session of Congress on health care reform.

Laszewski said Obama and the Democrats claim that reform will be "deficit neutral"- that it would neither increase nor reduce healthcare costs.

"I would ask the question: is ‘deficit neutral' an appropriate objective for health care reform? If you pretty much end up in the same place anyway, albeit with 30 million more people insured, it's still an unaffordable system (with healthcare costing) 22 percent of GDP. Have you really reformed it?" he said. "I have not seen the press challenge the notion of deficit neutral."

And if experts agree that 30 percent of U.S. healthcare spending goes to waste, Laszewski asked, why do the Democrats say that tax increases are needed?

Republicans, on the other hand, say the government needs to reform the medical malpractice system and allow the interstate sale of insurance to create more competition, he said.

But several studies show that medical malpractice reform is not among the top four ways to reduce health care costs, Laszewski said. Nor have the Republicans offered any proof that interstate sale of insurance would lower costs, he said.

The other panelists included Boston Globe health and science reporter Kay Lazar, Time magazine national political correspondent Karen Tumulty, and Trudy Lieberman, director of CUNY's Health and Medicine Reporting Program.

Although much of the coverage has been from a national perspective, reporters can look for local and regional angles by talking with residents and small business owners and project how health care reform proposals might affect them, Lieberman said.

"Everyone has a dog in this fight," she said. "It's not hard to find people."

Among the panelists' other observations:

• The "myth vs. fact" approach is overused and not very effective, given that many people continue to cling to the myths.

• Although many have held Massachusetts up as an example of health care reform, some reporters don't understand that the state does not offer a public option, Lazar said. And although reform has increased coverage for Massachusetts residents, it was a politically difficult effort and did not address how to contain health care costs, she said.

• Few reporters cover the issue of containing costs or what drives costs, panelists said.

• Reporters share responsibility for the public's confusion over health care reform by acting like stenographers rather than broadening out and bringing context to the issue, Lieberman said.

• President Obama and Democrats also share responsibility for the confusion by announcing different goals for health care reform, she said.

• Reporters should include help humanize stories by including people and how talking about how health care reform would affect them, Tumulty said. Readers, listeners or viewers will pay attention and say, "That could be me," she said. Otherwise, coverage bogs down in statistics or special interests, she said.

• Online is the easiest place to educate readers about such a complex subject, because there are no space limitations, and there's more give-and-take, Tumulty said.

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