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Borde-nough: Looking for media watchdogs in a shrinking pool

Published: October 2, 2009
Section: Opinions


The media is portraying the phenomenon of protests against President Barack Obama’s plans to change the healthcare system as “national.” The protesters’ weapon of choice seems to be the ad hominem attack. Signs and chants portray Obama as a dictator of the political left. At the same time, reporters following Obama focus on his oratory and on the cheering crowds that complement his speaking talents. Whether his health care plans are adopted is made to seem a question of how many crowds he can seduce by the time his proposals come to a vote.

Neither Obama’s oft-rehearsed, uncompromisingly rosy healthcare pitch nor his opponents’ even less substantive attacks on their image of the president’s ideology and character tell us much about what is on the table. If the news allows any basis for audiences to choose a side, it seems, it is by taking the measure of which side can muster the loudest crowd of partisans.

I don’t fault Obama for this situation, although he has done nothing to improve it. He’d be a poor salesman if he told the public that the plan he’s pushing was full of problems. If left to his own devices, he’ll show only his high cards. It is the role of the opposition and the press to call his hand.

Both groups are conspicuously failing to do that. The Republicans are showing their immaturity as an opposition party. Obama’s sweeping health care proposals should amount to a huge target, but Republicans are not really taking aim. Instead, they focus on Obama himself—Obama the socialist, Obama the dictator. Even their shorthand for the president’s proposals (“Obamacare”) puts the focus on the man rather than the matter at issue. Furthermore, the Republicans have put forward no alternative health care program—a rookie opposition mistake. Even if they prefer the status quo, the public’s perception of them will suffer if they appear to be name-calling do-nothings. Surely, Republicans can think of some worthwhile proposal to rally behind, if only to keep up appearances.

The media doesn’t have the excuse of immaturity. Its coverage has focused on events—Obama’s speeches and party lackeys’ rallies—and on poll data. It has been very weak on explication of ideas. The proposed reforms are complicated, but not unfathomable. If the best that broadcast news shows and local papers can do is to tell their audiences that some people support Obama’s health care plan and that others don’t, their fate should be the same as that of car companies that make lousy cars (and I don’t mean that they should receive taxpayer bailouts).

The media’s most important role in a democracy is to question policy. In doing so, it does not act in a partisan role, even if the media itself has a partisan cast. Whether the media is “liberal” or “conservative,” and whether or not there exist credible opposition parties that can do better than put pictures of their adversaries and of Hitler together on posters, journalists aren’t doing their jobs if much of the public remains in ignorance of the facts surrounding the hottest political topic in the country.

What does the White House mean when it claims on its website that Obama’s plan “reins in the cost of health care for our families, our businesses, and our government?” If it could do that without sacrificing quality, it would surely be a good plan. But can it?

Insurance companies set the rates they charge based on the forms and amounts of coverage that are underwritten and the risks of insuring the individual or group. Obama’s plan will tend to increase costs to insurance companies. Insurers won’t be able to deny coverage or charge “higher premiums” when an applicant for insurance has a “pre-existing condition,” or when actuaries have determined that age or gender makes them riskier to insure. Insurers will no longer be able to limit their costs with provisions in their policies that make policyholders responsible for out-of-pocket charges beyond fixed limits, because Obama’s plan puts “caps” on out-of-pocket expenses. Obama’s proposal also “eliminates extra charges for preventive care” that once fell on consumers, ostensibly leaving insurers to foot the bill.

Clearly, insurers’ costs will rise if these measures are enacted. But Obama’s plan contains no mechanism to prevent insurance companies from passing on these costs to consumers – businesses and people. If businesses and individuals are charged higher insurance premiums, how can Obama claim that his plan “reins in” their costs? By raising premiums, will his plan cause some people to lose individual coverage, and cause some employers to drop their group plans? Obama hopes to sock “insurance companies that sell very expensive plans” with a special “fee.” Will some insurance companies give up writing health insurance policies altogether under these new conditions, thereby reducing competition and potentially increasing costs further? “Large employers” of more than 50 workers and “individuals who can afford it” will have to buy insurance or pay fines “so everyone shares in the responsibility of reform.” But will this encourage companies to downsize, cut wages or other benefits, or fold? And how many people will be able to “afford” individual coverage after these new cost-boosting initiatives are in place?

Government’s costs are supposed to be “reined in,” too. But the president’s plan offers “new tax credits to help people buy insurance” and to small businesses “to offset costs of providing coverage.” Not only the currently uninsured, but also presumably some of those who lost coverage because of higher premiums charged due to Obama’s rule-changes, will be in line for these credits. Obama’s plan would also offer “new, low-cost coverage” until at least 2013 to “high-risk” applicants whose care is so costly that private companies won’t insure them at anything less than prohibitive rates. In the circumstances, how can a plan that does these things be said to “rein in” costs to government?

The White House website claims that the plan “won’t add a dime to the deficit and is paid for upfront” by “health system savings and new revenue.” But the website adds disingenuously that “if the savings promised at the time of enactment don’t materialize, the President will be required to put forth additional savings to ensure that the plan does not add to the deficit.” So, is the plan really “paid for upfront,” or are the “savings” and “new revenue” just self-serving projections? After a brief honeymoon of high spending based on these sham projections, will quality begin to suffer when “additional savings” are “put forth”?

The president’s supporters might also wonder why he is trying so hard to avoid the impression that funding for his plans will be drawn from the Treasury’s general revenue. Is health care reform important or not? Rather