Apr
07
2009

Frontline Distorts Global Healthcare Options

PBS show treats mandatory for-profit insurance as the only alternative

The March 31 documentary by PBS's Frontline, Sick Around America, treated mandatory for-profit insurance coverage as the only alternative to the current U.S. healthcare system--even though the documentary was a sequel to a 2008 Frontline special, Sick Around the World (4/15/08), that examined several publicly funded healthcare models, including Taiwan's single-payer system.

In a segment of Sick Around America subtitled "How to Get a Fairer System," Frontline narrator Will Lyman asked Karen Ignagni, a spokesperson from the insurers' trade group America's Health Insurance Plans, why the U.S. couldn't guarantee coverage for all like other developed countries do. After Ignagni responded that her industry could only guarantee universal coverage if the government required all citizens to have insurance, Lyman stated:

That's what other developed countries do. They make insurers cover everyone and they make all citizens buy insurance. And the poor are subsidized.

This generalization about other developed countries being places where "people are mandated to buy" insurance is also repeated on Frontline's web page about Sick Around America, in a paragraph that contains a link to the Sick Around the World investigation. The only alternative to the current U.S. healthcare system that was examined in any depth in Sick Around America was Massachusetts' system of mandating that people buy insurance from for-profit health insurance companies.

But this exclusive focus on mandatory for-profit health insurance as a solution to the healthcare problems facing the nation negated Frontline's earlier findings about the healthcare systems in developed countries. None of the healthcare systems featured in Sick Around the World is based on mandatory purchase of for-profit insurance; indeed, as a report by the Canadian government noted (5/97; revised 2/01), "The United States is the only OECD country that relies primarily on private insurance for healthcare financing."

Frontline's 2008 documentary actually highlighted Taiwan's single-payer model of healthcare system. As Frontline correspondent T.R. Reid explained, when Taiwanese healthcare adopted single-payer it went from being "worse than America's is today," with high rates of uninsured, to a system that guarantees coverage for all and "has the lowest administrative costs in the world, less than 2 percent." The U.K.'s system of public national health insurance was also featured.

And as Reid emphasized in the conclusion of the 2008 report, in countries 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." (This point is made by one source in passing in Sick Around America, but it's easy to miss.)

Reid was supposed to be the correspondent for the new documentary, but he revealed in an interview with Corporate Crime Reporter (4/2/09) that he quit over concerns that the new documentary contradicted his earlier research:

"I said to them, mandating for-profit insurance is not the lesson from other countries in the world," Reid said. "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.

"Doctors, hospitals, nurses, labs can all be for-profit," Reid said. "But the payment system has to be non-profit. All the other countries have agreed on that. We are the only one that allows health insurance companies to make a profit. You can't allow a profit to be made on the basic package of health insurance."

Frontline's new documentary perpetuates the media's longstanding pattern of ignoring proposals for single-payer health insurance (FAIR Media Advisory, 3/6/09), despite the fact that this proposal polls well with the American public and has been codified in a bill co-sponsored by 74 congressmembers. While Sick Around America included several spokespeople from the health insurance industry, no single-payer advocate was featured in the documentary.

ACTION:

Ask Frontline why Sick Around America misrepresented the findings of Sick Around the World, treating mandatory for-profit insurance coverage as the only alternative to the current U.S. healthcare system.

CONTACT:

Frontline

frontline@pbs.org

617-300-3500

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