The Rules for Covering Obamacare, Medicare and Medicaid: Bad news gets page one, good news gets buried, and Big Pharma gets ignored entirely

November 23rd, 2015 · No Comments · health care reform, journalism

By Arthur Alpert

“Premiums to rise for Medicare drug plan” was the headline Journal editors ran over an Associated Press story they front-paged today, Monday, Nov. 23.

Of course, they ran it on the front page. There must be a rule at the Journal – anything negative, even potentially negative about Obamacare, Medicare or Medicaid must run on Page One.

Its converse is obvious. If we have to publish news favorable to those programs, let’s bury it.

Oh, and before we consider today’s account from Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar of AP’s Washington Bureau, a word to the wise.

Our national healthcare system is a partnership between government and Corporate America’s Health Industries Division. Traditionally, corporate interests have hidden behind government to rip off citizens. (See the ICC and railroads, the FCC and broadcasting.)

Read carefully, and you’ll find the Albuquerque Journal failing, consistently, to distinguish between the health partners in its news coverage. I have no idea why that is, but readers could blame Washington when the health industry is at fault.

Just sayin’.

Anyway, the Journal’s AP story on rising drug prices ran some 20-odd paragraphs and included, in the 18th graph, mention of political opposition.

Of course, Alonso-Zaldivar wrote nothing on why Americans pay so much for prescription drugs, a question –that seems not to grip him or the Journal.

It follows, then, that the story didn’t note Big Pharma wrote the provision in the Medicare Part D legislation prohibiting Medicare from bargaining for volume discounts on drugs, which savings might be passed along to ancient folks like me who swallow a lot of pills. (Yes, I have a dog in this fight.)

Nor did it discuss any of several techniques Big Pharma uses to boost prices, like paying the manufacturers of generics to not manufacture generics. (Robert Reich, one of the political economists on the Journal’s Index of Banned Economists, treats that subject early in his newest book. “Saving Capitalism”.)

And naturally, there was no reference to the patent system enabling Big Pharma to profit from the world’s most expensive drugs. (Dean Baker at the Center for Economic Policy Research has explored alternatives.)

To be fair, the headline was accurate and lacked histrionics, in apparent violation of another Journal rule for Page One health care stories – make them as scary as possible.

The way the editors did when they wrote a rubric for the daily’s front-page lead story Thursday, Oct. 29:

“State Medicaid costs called a ‘runaway train’”.

That’s more like it.

This is not to say the Journal censors all positive news relating to Obamacare, Medicaid and Medicare. It just never makes Page One and rarely the “A” section.

Case in point – readers of today’s Business Outlook will find it inside Richard Metcalf’s piece on unemployment as well as in a caption for an accompanying photo:

“The employment sector leading the way in job growth is health care, with the impetus coming from the federal Affordable Care Act.”

Hmm. On Page One, Medicaid costs are a “runaway train,” but in the middle of story in Business Outlook, they’re “leading the way in job growth.”

I see.

Look, Obamacare, Medicaid and Medicare are complicated systems. As a citizen, I rely on and appreciate the last-named but often it’s downright baroque, a view shared by some of my doctors.

Ergo, the proper role of journalists is to describe how these systems work, where they succeed and fail, dispassionately, aiming to serve (here comes an old-fashioned phrase) the public interest.

And to do so, let’s be clear with their purpose in mind – the health of citizens, not the health of the insurer’s stock on the NYSE.

Which is why I disagree with Paul Krugman, whose latest N.Y.Times column on Obamacare also ran Monday, the 23rd. He’s too sanguine about the defects of corporate health care.

Still, he approached the journalistic task properly. The argument was complex, not simplistic. He cited plusses and minuses, tried to be fair and was thoughtful on his way to a positive but mixed verdict.

Need I say the Journal takes a different tack? Nah.

Let’s continue the conversation after Thanksgiving, shall we? Have a good holiday.

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