Four Health Care Media Myths That Didn’t Go Away in 2008
by Niko Karvounis
No matter how you slice it, health care is complicated—which means that the media has a vital role to play in helping the public navigate the ins and outs of the issue. Unfortunately, more often than not, reporters, commentators, and pundits don’t serve as trustworthy guides when it comes to health care. In fact, 2008 saw the media once again regurgitating myths that obscure the facts surrounding health care in the United States. Here are some of the most egregious offenders.
Access Is Not a Problem
In August, John Goodman, president of the right-wing National Center for Policy Analysis, wrote a ridiculous blog post arguing that nobody lacks health insurance in the United States because “only people who are denied care are truly uninsured.” Thus, because hospitals are required by law to provide emergency services, every American essentially has health insurance. “Voila!” says Goodman: access to health care is not a problem.
Goodman’s ramblings would have been easy to overlook as right-wing nonsense if the Dallas Morning News hadn’t reported his comments twice and declared them “simple and logical.” Equally unfortunate was the fact that CNN.com uncritically parroted his absurd claim. From these high-profile news outlets, Goodman’s ludicrous argument trickled down to the punditocracy: in September, conservative commentator Glenn Beck smugly declared that, because it’s “against federal law to deny health care to someone who needs it,” we shouldn’t worry about issues of access.
The Socialized Medicine Bogeyman
In a year of progressive renewal, you knew this one was going to make an appearance. In October, the Wall Street Journal editorial page warned that “a liberal supermajority” and “[an] unchecked left-wing ascendency” would institute an “inevitable” single-payer health care system in the United States. According to the Wall Street Journal, socialists-in-waiting will introduce their system gradually, “so as not to cause immediate alarm,” through the Trojan Horse of Barack Obama’s health care plan.
In reality, Obama’s plan isn’t single-player—in fact, he wants to introduce a new public health insurance plan to compete with private insurers, thus giving consumers greater choice and shaking up the stagnant, inefficient insurance market. If this sounds like a good compromise between progressive and conservative priorities, that’s because it is: progressives get more accessible coverage and conservatives get more competition.
So why are those on the right-wing so upset? They’re afraid that private insurers can’t handle competition and that people will flock to the public plan, thus instituting a de facto single-payer system. That’s why in August, the Wall Street Journal’s Washington Wire misleadingly declared that Obama “would consider embracing a single-payer health-care system . . . over time,” even though he explicitly said that single-payer didn’t make sense for America. It’s also why Sean Hannity bone-headedly decried Obama’s “nationaliz[ation of] our health care” on Fox News in October. I guess conservatives only like competition if corporations are guaranteed to come out on top.
Blame the Immigrants
Another ubiquitous myth that reared its ugly head this year was the idea that illegal immigrants are responsible for America’s skyrocketing health care costs because they lack insurance, can’t pay for medicine, and crowd our emergency rooms.
As it turns out, immigrants use less health care than citizens, but that’s not something you’d conclude from media coverage. In July, for example, CNN’s Kitty Pilgrim baselessly asserted that “illegal aliens likely make up 40 percent of the uninsured in this country” while filling in for Lou Dobbs on his show. This is a crazy claim: as Media Matters has noted, for Pilgrim’s numbers to be true, “18.8 million undocumented immigrants would have to be uninsured, but the National Institute for Health Care Management has estimated that there are 5.6 million uninsured undocumented immigrants.” Nice one, Kitty.
Reuters ran a less blatant, but equally misleading, headline this month: “Undocumented immigrants cost Texas $678 million in 2007.” Supposedly, this hefty sum is the amount that hospitals in Texas spent on health care for undocumented workers. Except there’s a catch: “[t]he report did not include estimates of how much these residents pay in state and local taxes.” In other words, the state may well have gotten back much of the $678 million it spent on health care through taxes.
Lo and behold, the Houston Chronicle—who, like Reuters, ran a misleading headline trumpeting the $678 million—dug a little deeper and found that “illegal immigrants in 2005 paid $1.58 billion in taxes while . . . local governments spent $1.3 billion on indigent health care.” If these numbers, or similar ones, hold for 2007—and there’s no reason to think they don’t—undocumented Texas immigrants actually covered their own health care bill and then some. In other words, there is no story here.
Pity the Employers
This last myth isn’t exactly pernicious, it’s just inaccurate. One of the most oft-heard justifications for health care reform is that it will take the burden off employers whose bottom line and competitive edge suffer from our cumbersome, employer-based health care system. During the Democratic primaries, for example, Barack Obama said that it’s a tragedy “when businesses have to lay off one employee because they can’t afford the health care for another” and Hillary Clinton noted that “large American companies [can’t] compete . . . against companies in countries that impose far lower health care burdens on employers.”
To be sure, the employers-as-victims meme is a beneficial one: the more businesses feel that health care reform is in their best interest, the smoother it will go. So it’s not necessarily bad that news outlets across the country and the Web consistently called attention to employer health care costs in 2008.
But it’s important that we move forward with the right priorities—and in the end, the burden of businesses shouldn’t be our top concern. In March, two scholars from the National Institutes of Health and Stanford University published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association arguing that workers—and not employers—ultimately foot America’s health care bill. Indeed, the authors cite data showing that employer health care costs and workers’ wages have respectively increased and decreased at roughly the same pace over the past few decades. Translation: what employers pay for health insurance they take out from workers’ wages.
Yes, our employer-based health care system is a mess and is less than ideal for businesses; but employers have the wiggle room to pay workers less as they shell out more for benefits. As health care costs increase, however, workers have no such recourse: they get less pay, which they have to spend on more expensive health care. They’re the real victims. By all means, mobilize the troops for health care reform—but let’s also keep in mind that our principle motivation for change is the average, hardworking American.