Jun 1 1994

NPR Health Reform ‘Debate’ Needs Second Opinion

Listeners to National Public Radio‘s Morning Edition are familiar with two regular pundits–former U.S. Representatives Tom Downey (D.-N.Y.) and Vin Weber (R.-Minn.)–who are supposed to give contrasting viewpoints on congressional events.

But on the healthcare issue, NPR‘s point-counterpoint team are working for the same side–the side of the health insurance industry and healthcare companies who have a strong interest in preventing any meaningful healthcare reform.

According to Legal Times (3/28/94), Downey is a lobbyist for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., one of the largest providers of health insurance, and US Healthcare, a major Pennsylvania-based HMO. Both HMOs and the large health insurance companies stand to benefit from a “managed competition” approach to healthcare, different versions of which are pushed by President Clinton, Rep. Jim Cooper (D.-Tenn.) and Sen. John Chafee (R.-R.I.). Downey also represents a division of the Merck pharmaceutical corporation.

Legal Times reported that Weber, for his part, is a consultant to the Alliance for Managed Competition, a coalition of the “Big Five” health insurance companies (including Metropolitan Life). Another client Weber consults for is the United Healthcare Corp.

Weber and Downey have “debated” the health reform issue on Morning Edition at least three times in the past year (9/21/93, 10/28/93, 3/8/94). In none of these debates did they mention their extensive ties to the healthcare industry. But their clients had reason to appreciate the positions they took on health reform.

For example, on the October 28, 1993 program, Weber declared: “At the end of the day, there are two ways to pay for universal service. One is through some big increase in taxes somewhere and the other is through some serious, rigorous restriction of choice.”

Actually, the Congressional Budget Office and Congress’ General Accounting Office have both found that there is a way to provide universal service while cutting cost, without rationing: a Canadian-style single-payer system, in which all medical bills are paid by the government. This would eliminate the health insurance companies that Weber and Downey both work for, however; neither of NPR‘s congressional analysts have treated the single-payer option as a serious alternative.

In fact, Downey actively encourages Clinton to avoid seeking the support of the single-payer advocates, who make up a large bloc of votes in Congress. During the September 21, 1993 discussion, he said that “there are not enough Democratic votes” to pass a healthcare plan, because “the Democrats in the House and the Senate are split between those who would like a Canadian single-payer system and the more moderate and conservative Democrats who would like to try a managed competition approach.”

Downey advises Clinton “play a bipartisan game” and “isolate the far left and the far right”–i.e., single-payer Democrats and Republicans who insist there’s no healthcare crisis.

Since their most recent health “debate,” Morning Edition has begun noting that Downey is a “lobbyist” and Weber is a “consultant.” But even though both work for corporate clients that have an interest in any number of issues, no more specific identifications are planned. NPR seems to feel that everyone knows that former congress members go on to become corporate lobbyists. “Do you think our audience is so naive that they think people trained in a specific line of work are now out there making pizza?” Morning Edition senior producer Ellen McDonnell asked Legal Times.