News stories that paint Medicare as the villain in cost containment

WBBM in Chicago last week asked, “Is Medicare Ignoring Cheaper Lung Cancer Test?

Screen shot 2010-02-23 at 1.55.03 PM.png In its report, the TV station’s “investigator” team promoted a company president’s complaints against Medicare for much of the piece. They let him get away with saying:

“This is a potentially very powerful tool in the toolbox against lung cancer. You can zap the cancer and potentially be cured of early-stage lung cancer without ever having the surgery.”

Should we be hearing that from a company president worried about his bottom line while he “wows” the audience with blown-up images like the one at left that appeared in the story? Or should we hear about evidence and data from an independent investigator whose research could speak to efficacy? The story never provided any data to back up the company president’s self-interested claims.

They also let him get away with saying, “I think it has the potential to save Medicare millions of dollars.”

We’re not getting much smarter from stories like this. We’re sure not getting a better understanding that in health care, “more is not always better and newer is not always better.” We’re also not being shown how often special interests – Pharma, device makers, specialty physician groups, etc. – are digging in against health care reform.

Recently, Trudy Lieberman wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review about how cardiologists were using journalists to complain about their reimbursement levels being cut by Medicare. She wrote:

“The doctors’ letter warned that they “will be either forced out of business or forced to drastically increase the number of patients seen, most likely with physician assistants or nurse practitioners.” Oh, oh. The specter of rationing and inferior care–“

See the similar themes in what she wrote about and in what we saw in the Chicago WBBM story?

Lieberman praised a Miami Herald story for how it handled the issue but said that:

“..a bunch of news articles for the most part passed along the cardiologists’ complaints, threats, and warnings without any hint that there was another side to the story. Between the slanted newspaper articles and audio news releases from the American College of Cardiology, millions of Americans learned that the incomes of heart doctors, which can be upwards of $400,000, could take a hit. As an example of the kinds of cuts Medicare envisioned under the new rule, the administrator of one Florida heart practice explained that the reimbursement for a nuclear stress test could drop from $850 to $600. Presumably he said it with a straight face.”

News stories that foster rhetoric and fear-mongering aren’t making us any smarter. As Lieberman wrote:

“Containing the runaway cost of medical care is the thorniest of all the thorny issues in the health-reform debate. It is a complicated, charged, and crucial issue; the press needs to dig in and own it.”

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