Covering Medicare before the election and beyond

Published on
September 20, 2012

Editor's note: Even as the media continues to focus on the once-secret Mitt Romney fundraiser video, Medicare remains a critical topic in the upcoming presidential election. Here, veteran health journalist Trudy Lieberman offers some great tips for getting past the campaign rhetoric to smartly cover Medicare issues facing your community.

With Mitt Romney’s pick of Paul Ryan for the VP spot on the ticket, Medicare — the program everyone takes for granted — suddenly became hot news. So what do you do when an editor asks you to write about a government health care program that covers nearly 50 million seniors and disabled people? Shaking at the knees is not an option.

Having covered this subject for 25 years, I know the feeling. It’s easy to get tangled in the weeds, and this election season, Medicare is being demagogued to death.

The public is confused. One Pennsylvania woman told me last week she didn’t know whom to believe. So learning how to untangle Medicare is important and worth the effort. While you may think Medicare is a national story, it isn’t exclusively the province of Beltway reporters. Like all health care, it’s local. Here are a few suggestions for transforming Medicare from a political story to a local one.

One good place to start is with simple man (and woman) on the street interviews. I have been out in the country asking people what they think of the changes to Medicare advocated by Ryan and others.

Polls show that people 65 and older and even those who are younger do not favor radical changes in Medicare along the lines of a voucher plan Ryan has proposed. Ryan has proposed giving Medicare beneficiaries a voucher or a sum of money from the government that will help them buy a health insurance policy from a private company. If the money doesn’t cover the premium, then they’ll have to pay out of pocket for the rest. The government no longer would be providing benefits for doctor and hospital services, Aetna, Blue Cross, and UnitedHealthcare will.

What better way to find out what people in your area are thinking than to ask them? These stories are easy to do. Go to a shopping mall, a bowling alley, or any place where lots of people gather and start asking them what they’ve heard about changes to Medicare and what do they think of them. Be sure to ask about their own financial circumstances to help put a frame around what they are saying.

Campaign Ads

Sorting out the local ads and TV commercials about Medicare is another way to bring the Medicare story home.

Both the Dems and the GOP are running campaign ads around the country, with the GOP claiming that Obama cut $716 billion from Medicare to pay for subsidies called for by the health reform law and Democrats saying the money really adds up to future Medicare savings. People are scared of losing their benefits and don’t understand what the changes might mean for them. Ads aired by both political camps hardly clear up the confusion. Parsing the ads and setting the record straight makes good copy.

Some of the fact checking services like PolitiFact may help, but be careful. Everyone seems to be a fact checker these days, and sometimes their critiques miss the mark or are over the top. It’s best to check with health policy groups like the Kaiser Family Foundation, or experts like Henry Aaron at the Brookings Institution and Marilyn Moon at the American Institutes for Research, to fully understand what each side is saying.

That means, of course, you will have to do an explainer or two telling people what’s at stake with any change to Medicare. To understand the different ways Medicare might change and has already changed, check out my Columbia Journalism Review primer. You might also want to check in with Medicare advocacy organizations like the Medicare Rights Center, California Health Advocates, and the Center for Medicare Advocacy.

Supplemental Coverage

And of course, there are always local stories that help seniors with the annual rite of selecting new Medicare supplemental coverage for the coming year. Medicare open enrollment begins October 15, earlier than in the past. Seniors will have seven weeks to study all the offerings in their areas and change coverage if they want to. In doing these kinds of stories, I’ve always thought it was a good idea to put yourself in the shoes of someone who has to navigate the Medicare system. It’s not easy, as I found out last year when I turned 65. This post will tell you how hard it is even for someone who sort of knows the system.

When the politicians talk about vouchers and more choice for seniors and disabled people, think about what that means. Last year, a Medicare counselor commenting on one of my posts suggested reporters spend a few hours listening to Medicare counselors work with seniors at their local HICAP (Health Insurance Counseling & Advocacy Program) office to see how hard it is now to make sense of Medicare let alone an insurance policy to cover gaps in benefits.

When reporters understand that process, it will be easier to question the politicians who think more than 100 choices for seniors - which there are in some parts of the country - is such a good idea.

Related Content:

Medicare: Where’s the evidence that vouchers save money?

Medicare and the $500 Billion Bogeyman: Will a half-truth still work for the GOP?

How I Did the Story: Doctor Shortage Areas (HPSAs) and Medicare Bonuses

Issue Worth Exploring: Raising the Medicare Eligibility Age May Harm Minorities

Photo credit: Mike Licht via Flickr