Jun
01
2009

Media Quarantine of Single-Payer Continues

Fifteen years later, public health insurance still taboo

As a big healthcare policy debate looms once again in Washington, one thing remains as certain as it was in 1993: A single-payer plan that would provide government health insurance to everyone is off the media agenda.

picture of CNN's elizabeth cohen

CNN senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen recently explained why healthcare “reform” is more possible now than it was under the Clinton administration (3/5/09):

Fifteen years ago you sometimes heard—actually you heard quite a bit—people saying: “Let’s have a single-payer system like in Canada. The government is going to be the health insurer for everybody.” You don’t hear that as much as you used to. So more people are on the same page more than they once were.

Cohen is right that there were many people in favor of single-payer 15 years ago; as Extra! pointed out back then (7-8/93), polls consistently found majorities supporting tax-financed national health insurance. And the numbers today? A January New York Times/CBS poll (1/11-15/09) found 59 percent in favor of government-provided national health insurance. In other words, contrary to Cohen’s claim, people are on pretty much the same page today as they were 15 years ago.

Her suggestion that it was those loud single-payer voices that stymied “reform” is likewise unfounded; as Extra! reported in 1993, corporate media were then solidly behind the Clinton administration’s big insurer-friendly “managed competition” plan—single-payer was hardly discussed in the press. (“The debate over healthcare reform is over. Managed competition has won,” the New York Times had already editorialized on October 10, 1992. “The outcome is as wondrous as it is surprising.”)

And just as big media silenced single-payer back then, Cohen and her colleagues continue the tradition today. In the week leading up to Obama’s March 5 healthcare summit, hundreds of stories in major newspapers and on NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR and PBS’s NewsHour mentioned healthcare reform, according to a recent FAIR study (3/6/09). But the idea of single-payer was mentioned only 18 times—and only five of those included the views of single-payer advocates.

On March 31, PBS’s Frontline took an in-depth look at the U.S. healthcare system in Sick Around America, offering a prime opportunity to explore single-payer—or so thought the correspondent originally slated to do the show, T.R. Reid. In Frontline’s 2008 special Sick Around the World, Reid examined healthcare systems in other developed countries, concluding that in nations where there is some private-sector role in health financing, one of the central lessons is that they “all impose limits”—including that insurance companies “can’t make a profit on basic care.” The show discussed single-payer alternatives, including Taiwan’s healthcare system.

But in Sick Around America, the only alternative to the current U.S. healthcare system that was examined in any depth was Massachusetts’ system of mandating that people buy insurance from for-profit health insurance companies. Reid, who was contracted to be the correspondent for the new documentary, quit over concerns that it contradicted his earlier research (Corporate Crime Reporter, 4/2/09):

I said to them, mandating for-profit insurance is not the lesson from other countries in the world.... I said, I’m not going to be in a film that contradicts my previous film and my book. They said I had to be in the film because I was under contract. I insisted that I couldn’t be. And we parted ways.

After FAIR criticized the film (4/7/09), Frontline pointed out that the show’s narrator mentions that “other developed countries bar health insurance companies from making profits on basic care and cap their administrative costs.” Of course, one brief mention in an hour-long show hardly constitutes a fair hearing.

As FAIR’s study found, most mentions of single-payer tend to come from its critics, who bring it up in order to shoot it down—such as when Fox’s Sean Hannity argued (2/19/09), “If we look at England, if we look at France, if we look at Canada, the single-payer, the worst thing we can do if we really care about kids is let the government run the healthcare system.”

Single-payer did recently get a new proponent in corporate media with MSNBC’s hiring of populist radio host Ed Schultz to fill its 6 p.m. slot. Since going on the air April 6, Schultz has questioned guests about single-payer multiple times, as when he asked why the Democrats won’t put such a plan on the table (4/27/09): “The majority of the health providers, the majority of Americans want single-payer. You’ve got a president with a 69 percent approval rating. What are they waiting for?”

Schultz ought to ask the question not just of Democrats, but of his corporate media colleagues as well.