Hilzenwrath: WaPo Reporter Assails 'Duplicitous' Insurers For Their 'Illusion of Choice'

It’s not surprising that Democrats treat the health-insurance industry as an enemy – an enemy that "single payer" advocates actually want to eliminate and liquidate.

But The Washington Post published an article Wednesday attacking insurance-industry claims that should have come with a "news analysis" label at the very least. Reporter David Hilzenrath’s story was headlined "Health Insurance Industry Spins Data in Fight Against Public Plan."

It reads like an attempt to rebut industry critics of the Democrat talking points, and suggest they "cherry pick the facts" in their arguments:

Indeed, the leader of the insurance lobby has sent lawmakers a message: Be careful what you change, because "77 percent of Americans are satisfied with their existing health insurance coverage."

Karen Ignagni, president of America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), invoked the statistic to argue against the creation of a government-run insurance option. But the polls are not that simple, and her assertion reveals how the industry's effort to defend its turf has led it to cherry-pick the facts.

The poll Ignagni was citing actually undercuts her position: By 72 to 20 percent, Americans favor the creation of a public plan, the June survey by the New York Times and CBS News found. People also said that they thought government would do a better job than private insurers of holding down health-care costs and providing coverage.

But take a look at the CBS/New York Times poll question (#68), which explicitly emphasizes Medicare and private-sector competition: "Would you favor or oppose the government offering everyone a government-administered health insurance plan – something like the Medicare coverage that people 65 and older get – that would compete with private sector health plans?"

If Hilzenrath thinks that this question "undercuts" Ignagni, it’s just as true that her 77 percent satisfaction number – from two liberal media outlets, weighting the sample to favor Democrats (38 percent Democrat, 24 percent Republican) – "undercuts" the liberal idea that Americans want a complete reorganization of the health care system.

Then readers learn that the Post asked a liberal health "reform" lobby to crunch some numbers and suggest that the people most satisfied with their insurance are somewhat clueless healthy people who don’t have any real-life experience filing insurance claims:

In addition, data from a Kaiser Family Foundation poll last year, compiled at the request of The Washington Post, suggest that the people who like their health plans the most are the people who use them the least.

Those who described their health as "excellent" -- people who presumably had relatively little experience pursuing medical care or submitting claims -- were almost twice as likely as those in good, fair or poor health to rate their private health insurance as excellent.

The level of satisfaction expressed with private insurance was essentially the same as that with Medicare, the government program for the elderly and disabled.

Hilzenrath also lined up a liberal professor to slam the insurance lobby:

The industry's stance against a public health plan revives shades of 1994, when it was instrumental in blocking President Bill Clinton's health-care proposals.

"A government-run plan would turn back the clock on efforts to improve the quality and safety of patient care," AHIP has argued. Such a plan "will ultimately limit choices and access," the big insurer WellPoint contends.

But systemic problems have persisted for 15 years, and it is not clear how much private insurers have done, or can do, to solve them.

"Insurers promise choice, they promise innovation, they promise a lot of things, but I think they've delivered very little," said Alan Sager, professor of health policy and management at Boston University. "I think net they give us very bad value for the 10 to 20 percent share of the health dollar they skim off the top."

Instead of choice, they offer "the illusion of choice," he said.

Five years ago, Sager explicitly threatened the pharmaceutical industry to cut a deal with government before the goverment slashes their prices unilaterally:

This requires a prescription-drug peace treaty. In return for cutting prices, drug makers should be rewarded with higher volume, and favorable payments for genuine breakthrough drugs. Drug makers should now cut a deal along these lines, while they still enjoy great political influence and some residue of public respect and credibility. Otherwise, a few years from now, the public just might elect the angriest Congress in history — one that will slash drug prices unilaterally.

A presciption drug "peace treaty"? As if the drug companies are waging war on the people?

Hilzenrath ended the story by offering former CIGNA spokesman Wendell Potter, without identifying his current hard-left job with the Center for Media and Democracy:

Insurers argue that a government plan could dominate the market, reducing consumers' options. But in the private market, options are limited by employers who restrict employees' choice of insurers and by insurers who restrict their choice of doctors.

Cigna, one of the nation's largest insurers, took away its own employees' alternatives in 2006 and left them with only high-deductible coverage.

"There were a lot of unhappy people," said Wendell Potter, who until last year was Cigna's head of corporate communications. For many people enrolled in such plans, "the deductibles are so high that they forgo care," he said.

Long a defender of the industry, Potter has become an outspoken critic of what he calls its "duplicitous" public relations and lobbying campaigns.

What’s "duplicitous" is not offering more of a description of how liberal and industry-hating your sources are. Hilzenrath committed the same offense of non-disclosure when Potter was a star Democrat witness back in June.

[Ignagni-bashing image from My GRIP Experience blog]

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis