Resolutions for the media

Dec 30 2010 - 12:57pm

After another year of spotlighting and criticizing mistakes of politicians and governments, it is way past time for those of us who handcraft the news to adopt the one New Year's resolution that will finally fix our own biggest mistake.

Namely: In 2011, we promise to go back to the basics of our jobs and begin telling people what is really happening at the Intersection of Policy, Politics and the News Media.

Which means: Not just covering the political name-calling and food fights as if they are the day's big news.

This will require big changes by news reporters and deciders. Reporters must begin by remembering their job is not covering the policymakers but covering the making of policy. Thus they must begin each day by seeking to discover not what officials with titles are saying, but what they are really doing. And mainly, whether it is working out as planned.

The deciders must begin by valuing this, which they once did but apparently now most don't because it just isn't being done much.

To understand why we must adopt a New Year's resolution that we will begin telling people what is really happening -- or not happening -- and why.

Consider the lead news story in Tuesday's Washington Post. It was enterprise journalism that set out to do the right thing: To report what has happened to a much-heralded provision of President Obama's healthcare reform -- to provide coverage for persons with pre-existing health problems. Yet it also shows that even the best of our news institutions can become rusty from not having done much of this sort of news coverage.

"An early feature of the new health-care law that allows people who are already sick to get insurance to cover their medical costs isn't attracting as many customers as expected," the article began.

"In the meantime, in at least a few states, claims for medical care covered by the "high-risk pools" are proving very costly, and it is an open question whether the $5 billion allotted by Congress to start up the plans will be sufficient."

But what is really going on with that Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan is far more significant than this low-keyed approach indicated. For, the plan actually has attracted a mere two percent of the customers that the administration had predicted.

Readers would discover this if they persevered through more than 300 words -- and then did the math themselves. ("In the spring, the Medicare program's chief actuary predicted that 375,000 people would sign up for the pool plans by the end of the year," the Post reported. "Early last month, the Health and Human Services Department reported that just 8,000 people had enrolled.")

The reporting presented two poignant patient case histories -- a woman who said the program "potentially saved my life" and a man who was distraught to discover that is premium was so expensive. It was nearly $600 a month -- and was impossible for him to pay for care he needs to survive, even after this historic healthcare reform he'd counted upon.

The article also noted, but only in passing, that federal officials said it will take time "to adjust prices and benefits so that the plans are as attractive as possible." But the article never explained the basic journalistic "how" -- in this case, how can coverage be made affordable to those who are uninsured and already sick?

When I asked Joseph Antos, an expert in healthcare at the American Enterprise Institute, whether it made sense to pay for coverage of those most in need directly through Medicaid, he answered: "That's what they're going to end up doing. It's a better answer than offering people something they can't afford. Those people will end up in Medicaid in 2014 (when the program's full provisions take effect)." Antos added that it was neither surprising, nor even news, that these high-risk pools would require premiums so high-priced.

But this was precisely the sort of topic we needed to have aired as news coverage back when the politicians were treating the healthcare debate as a food fight at a Tea Party. That's why our news craft needs a New Year's resolution now, more than ever.

Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram@gmail.com.

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