Media Beat, Nov. 24, 1993
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

Clintons vs. Insurance Industry: A Media Myth

Buoyed by NAFTA's victory, the White House will now concentrate on its other major policy initiative -- health care reform. We can expect mainstream news outlets to paint a picture of Bill and Hillary Clinton in mortal battle against the big bad insurance industry.

It's a vivid picture, but it distorts reality. As in the NAFTA battle, big corporations are in the president's corner.

In a much-publicized campaign aimed at whipping up populist support for the administration's health plan, Hillary Rodham Clinton blasted insurance companies opposing it. She denounced their "homey kitchen ads" airing on TV-featuring complaints from "Harry" and "Louise" about the Clinton plan. "There must be a better way," laments Louise.

"What you don't get told in the ad," charged Hillary Clinton, "is that it is paid for by insurance companies... It is time for you and every American to stand up and say to the insurance industry: 'Enough is enough, we want our health care system back!"'

The Democratic Party countered with its own ad promoting the White House plan: "The insurance companies may not like it, but the president didn't design it for them."

The rhetoric was hot-and the TV networks swallowed it hook, line and salsa. NBC's Tom Brokaw spoke of Hillary Clinton's "scathing attack on the health insurance industry." A CNN anchor declared that the administration was "engaged in something close to all-out war with the health insurance industry."

A full-blown media myth was born, with most reports omitting basic facts:

** The Health Insurance Association of America, which opposes the Clinton plan and produced the Harry and Louise ads, represents small to medium-size insurance companies. They would lose out to bigger firms under the administration's "managed competition" plan.

** The "Big Five" of health insurers-Aetna, Cigna, Metropolitan Life, Prudential and Travelers-have formed the Alliance for Managed Competition, which is sympathetic to the Clinton plan. That's because those firms, heavily invested in Health Maintenance Organizations, would be enriched by it.

** Operating through the Jackson Hole study group, the insurance giants helped draw up the managed competition blueprint, later adopted by the Clinton administration. Contrary to the Democratic Party ads, the Clinton plan was designed for -- and by -- big insurance interests. In a 1992 article in Health Economics magazine, Jackson Hole leaders bluntly argued that managed competition is the only way to avert a government takeover of "health care financing" and the "elimination of a multiple-payer private insurance industry."

What the Jackson Hole group feared was a Canadian-style system in which the government (the "single-payer") controls costs while paying all hospital and doctor bills. Single-payer rids health care of private insurance companies-along with costly bureaucracy, profiteering and wasteful advertising.

Despite the fact that a single-payer proposal has been endorsed by 95 members of Congress-plus groups like Consumers Union and Public Citizen -- most major media have pushed it to the margins. A recent computer search found only one mention of the single-payer proposal on ABC's World News Tonight in all of 1993.

When media do mention a Canadian-style system, it's often dismissed as 'politically unrealistic." Yet according to General Accounting Office and Congressional Budget Office studies, only single-payer has a realistic chance of extending universal coverage without raising costs -- the goal politicians claim to be seeking.

In a MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour segment about the various ads debating health care reform, anchor Margaret Warner proclaimed that "interest groups on all sides of the issue have taken to the airwaves."

Not quite.

One ad, supporting a single-payer system, has been kept off the airwaves from San Francisco to Boston to Washington, D.C. Produced by the grassroots group Neighbor to Neighbor, the ad features an engaging elderly woman, who asserts: "If we get rid of health insurance companies, we can have complete coverage for everyone for the same money. But any plan that keeps these guys in business will cost billions... To me, it's a no-brainer."

TV station managers offered a variety of excuses for rejecting the ad ("it's a call to action"; "too broad"; "undocumented"). According to Neighbor to Neighbor, one station executive candidly explained: "Many of our major advertisers are health insurers. We don't want to take any hits from the insurance companies."

While one side can't even buy its way into the debate, many news outlets offer a narrow health-care discussion pitting the Clinton plan-supported by large insurers-against smaller insurance companies that oppose it.

Something's wrong with a spectrum of debate no broader than the confines of the insurance industry.

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