Saturday, August 22, 2009

Media Matters: Press should take finger off button in "nuclear option" health care coverage

Weeekly UpDate from:


Media conservatives aren't content to merely misinform regarding the content of progressive health insurance reform legislation. They want to misinform about the legislative process used to pass that legislation, too. Just think of it: Death panels passed using a nuclear option. What American could support that?

In recent days, talk of Senate Democrats using the budget reconciliation process to pass health care reform legislation has grown. According to Senate rules, bills advanced through the process can't be filibustered, and so the 60-vote threshold that must be met to defeat a filibuster would not apply. Republicans used reconciliation in exactly this way during the Bush years to pass tax cuts in 2001, 2003, and 2005. Senate Republicans also used the reconciliation process to pass a bill permitting oil drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (The final version of that bill signed by Bush did not contain the provision on drilling.) So long as the legislation in question impacts the budget, doing so is within regular Senate order.

Conservatives in the media, however, have now chosen to portray such a course of action as the dreaded "nuclear option." As usual, a little history reveals a lot of hypocrisy. The phrase was actually coined by former Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) in 2003 during the Democratic filibuster of U.S. Court of Appeals nominee Miguel Estrada. At the time, Republican aides discussed changing the rules of the Senate to make filibusters of judicial nominees out of order. Lott, reflecting the drastic nature of such a change, called it a "nuclear option." Starting in 2005, Republicans noted that the term polled badly. They began referring to such a rules change as the "constitutional option," and claimed that only Democrats called it a "nuclear option." The media quickly fell in line, repeating the falsehood.

Unsurprisingly, the hypocrisy has continued. Passing budget-related legislation through the reconciliation process and the "nuclear option" have nothing to do with each other.

This hasn't stopped the conservative media from conflating the two. The goal is to portray progressives as a group of anti-democratic radicals, forcing through a supposedly unpopular bill using procedural tricks -- or, in Chris Matthews' words, "blow[ing] up the Senate rules." Fox News vice president and Washington managing editor Bill Sammon was one of the first to draw the false equivalency back in June, and in recent days, the chorus has only grown. Dick Morris did the same on August 10, and Sean Hannity has repeatedly pushed the distortion. The Fox Nation website even chose to illustrate the story using a mushroom cloud.

Just as they did several years ago, multiple mainstream media figures have taken up the right's deceitful talking point, among them A.B. Stoddard of The Hill, Matthews, and even CNN hosts Anderson Cooper and Kiran Chetry. Thus far, factual explanations, such as the one provided by CNN's Josh Levs, have been few and far between.

This distortion has jumped from the media to the highest levels of the Republican Party. When Hannity hosted RNC chairman Michael Steele, he asked about the "by any means necessary" approach Democrats were considering. "Does this mean the will of the American people," Hannity asked, "as evidenced by just about every credible poll, means nothing to them?" (It seems as though NBC/Wall Street Journal polls are no longer credible to Hannity.) Steele agreed: "If it means the nuclear option, it's going to be the nuclear option."

The right-wing distortion here is obvious and blatant. For the sake of its credibility, the media needs to take its finger off the "nuclear" button.

Other major stories this week
Tom DeLay joins Dancing with the Birthers

Disgraced former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) has had quite a week. First, it was announced that he will be joining the new cast of ABC's Dancing with the Stars. Appearing on ABC's Good Morning America, DeLay told Chris Cuomo: "I love dancing. ... You've got to love dancing if you're from Texas." He's right -- we all remember DeLay's deft ability to dance around congressional ethics rules. CNN's Campbell Brown called it DeLay's "second act," but I'm pretty sure his curtain was called years ago.

Far from finished, DeLay made the rounds on cable and network television promoting his new venture as a reality star. On MSNBC's Hardball, DeLay aligned himself with CNN's Lou Dobbs by saying, "I would like the president to produce his birth certificate."

Maybe ABC should rename the show Dancing with the Birthers, because Tom DeLay is apparently a master of el tango loco.

Beck's advertiser exodus continues

Last week we noted:

There was an encouraging development in the ongoing campaign to get hate off our public airwaves. After a host of progressive groups, among them Media Matters and, publicized Beck's recent rant accusing [President] Obama of racism, multiple companies announced that they would no longer advertise on his program -- among them: ConAgra, Roche, Sanofi-Aventis, Radio Shack, GEICO, Travelocity, and Sargento. Reflecting on the development, The Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart said that it might "pump the brakes on some of these wild statements." We can only hope.

Well, Beck's advertiser exodus continues. This week, Farmers Insurance reportedly said it had "ceased placing [ads] on Glenn Beck a week ago." Likewise, GMAC Financial Services, parent company of Ally Bank, announced that it, too, had "ceased advertising on the Glenn Beck program."

The conservative media chattering class is none too pleased with these developments. Radio host Rose Tennent called GEICO "idiots" for pulling Beck's ads, while radio talker Jim Quinn said Color of Change has "kowtowed" advertisers into ditching Beck. On his radio program, Fox News' Sean Hannity even claimed that accusations that radio hosts want the president dead (I, for one don't, remember anyone of prominence making this charge) were part of a "strategy to silence," like "people go[ing] after advertisers."

In other sponsor news, JC Penney reportedly said it has a "policy" that prohibits advertising on Rush Limbaugh's show -- but Media Matters was able to produce audio from El Rushbo's broadcast containing an ad for the retailer. Home Depot also reportedly claimed it doesn't "support" Limbaugh's program, and Media Matters was also able to produce audio of a Home Depot ad airing during the conservative leader's show. We welcome the policies announced by JC Penney and Home Depot, but perhaps now would be a good time for them to state publicly that they will no longer run ads on Rush's show.

When claimed that "the pressure on advertisers has become a politically charged debate about the right to free speech, censorship and what constitutes hate speech," Media Matters' Eric Boehlert responded: "Do editors at not understand what 'censorship' means in terms of free speech? ... Of course, only the government can censor free speech." In other words, the First Amendment doesn't guarantee anyone the right to his own show.

Conservative media: Barney Frank is soooo rude

At a town hall meeting in Massachusetts, a woman took to the mic and asked Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), who is both Jewish and gay, "why do you continue to support a Nazi policy as Obama has expressly supported this policy? Why are you supporting it?" Frank responded: "When you ask me that question, I'm going to revert to my ethnic heritage and answer your question with a question. On what planet do you spend most of your time?" Frank went on to say, "You want me to answer the question? As you stand there with a picture of the president defaced to look like Hitler and compare the effort to increase health care to the Nazis, my answer to you is, as I said before, it is a tribute to the First Amendment that this kind of vile, contemptible nonsense is so freely propagated. ... Ma'am, trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to have an argument with a dining room table. I have no interest in doing it.

For conservatives in the media, this was over the line. No, I'm not talking about the Nazi nonsense; I'm talking about Frank's response to the lunacy.

Fox News' Brian Kilmeade blasted Frank's "arrogance" and "smugness" and wondered why the Massachusetts Democrat couldn't just say, "I understand where you're coming from, but ... " His Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy repeatedly defended the woman, claiming that Frank's response to her was "rude," out of touch, and laden with "attitude," while never noting the content of the woman's question. Limbaugh called the woman's Nazi sign and question "fabulous" before telling his listeners that Frank "spends most of his time living around Uranus."

In the words of Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert, "I've been watching these town hall meetings, and I've had enough of these uncontrollable outbursts by members of Congress. Hey, congressmen, how are people supposed to scream their questions if you keep interrupting with your answers? And Democrat Barney Frank is the latest culprit."

Competition lacking among private health insurers

Associated Press Writer

One of the most widely accepted arguments against a government medical plan for the middle class is that it would quash competition — just what private insurers seem to be doing themselves in many parts of the U.S.

Several studies show that in lots of places, one or two companies dominate the market. Critics say monopolistic conditions drive up premiums paid by employers and individuals.

For Democrats, the answer is a public plan that would compete with private insurers. Republicans see that as a government power grab. President Barack Obama looks to be trapped in the middle of an argument that could sink his effort to overhaul the health care system.

Even lawmakers opposed to a government plan have problems with the growing clout of the big private companies.

"There is a serious problem with the lack of competition among insurers," said Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, one of the highest-cost states. "The impact on the consumer is significant."

Wellpoint Inc. accounted for 71 percent of the Maine market, while runner-up Aetna had a 12 percent share, according to a 2008 report by the American Medical Association.

Proponents of a government plan say it could restore a competitive balance and lead to lower costs. For one thing, it wouldn't have to turn a profit.

A study by the Urban Institute public policy center estimated that a public plan could save taxpayers from $224 billion to $400 billion over 10 years by lowering the cost of proposed subsidies for the uninsured, while preserving private coverage for most people.

"Right now, there's no incentive for insurers or big hospital groups to negotiate with each other, because they can pass higher payments on through premiums," said economist Linda Blumberg, co-author of the report. "A public plan would have the leverage to set lower payment rates and get providers to participate at those rates."

"The private plans would come back to the providers and say, 'If you don't negotiate with me, you're going to be left with only the public plan.'" Blumberg continued. "Suddenly, you have a very strong economic incentive for them to negotiate."

Insurers contend their industry is extremely competitive, and a public plan is unnecessary. About 1,300 carriers operate across the country, although many only have a small share of the market in their states.

"You can have a very competitive market and still have companies with a high market share," said Alissa Fox, a top Washington lobbyist for the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association.

Fox points to the federal employee health program, which also covers members of Congress. It offers a total of more than 260 options and 10 nationwide plans. Despite all the choices, about 60 percent of federal workers pick a Blue Cross plan.

"Insurers need to be of a significant size to best serve their customers and make sure that people get the best value," Fox said.

Nonetheless, lawmakers are concerned. Big insurers are getting bigger. Small businesses in particular have fewer and fewer options for getting coverage.

Congressional investigators this year looked at insurers catering to small employers around the country. The Government Accountability Office found that the median _or midpoint — market share of largest carrier increased to 47 percent in 2008 from 33 percent in 2002.

There's widespread recognition among lawmakers that a health care overhaul should foster more competition among insurers. The debate is over how far to go.

The basic framework lawmakers are looking at would encourage competition, even without a government plan. It calls for setting up a big insurance purchasing pool called an exchange. It would be open, at least initially, to individuals and small businesses. The government would offer subsidies to make premiums more affordable.

Consumers would find it much easier to shop for a plan through the exchange. For one thing, they would be able to readily compare benefits and premiums in different plans. Also, participating insurers would have to take all applicants and not charge higher premiums to those in poor health.

Offering the option of a public plan would supercharge the competition, supporters say.

Blumberg envisions a plan that pays medical providers more than Medicare, but less than private insurance. Her study estimated it could grow to 47 million members, leaving 161 million with private insurance. Even so, that would make the new public plan one of the largest insurers in the country, rivaling Medicare, Medicaid and big private companies such as Wellpoint and UnitedHealthcare.

It's a scenario that gives pause even to traditional adversaries of the insurance companies.

"The fear and concern is that the public plan could become the market-dominant plan," said Dr. James Rohack, president of the American Medical Association. "When you've got the federal government involved, it can infuse money into a plan to keep it solvent even if the premiums are lower than its actual costs."

Snowe, among the few Republican senators still trying to come up with a bipartisan compromise, wants to hold back on creating a public plan for now and give insurers one last chance to show if they can keep costs in check.

That's doesn't go far enough for liberals, who are loath to give the insurance industry tens of millions of new customers supported by taxpayer subsidies.

"It would give the industry a windfall without any countervailing force to require them to lower their costs," said Richard Kirsch, national campaign manager for the advocacy group Health Care for America Now. "The insurance companies could continue to jack up premiums while getting a whole new market."