Unhealthy Eagerness for More Government Health Care

In his Week in Review cover story this Sunday, "Necessary Medicine?," health reporter Kevin Sack latched on with unseemly eagerness to a potential bright sideof the current recession: More government involvement in health care (or as Sack put it, Obama's proposals "to remake the health delivery system") may become an easier sale to a frightened and insecure populace.

Sack didn't emphasizethat Obama wants morefederal government involvement inhealth care ("a major expansion of health coverage" was the most detailSack gave), and the caption accompanying the story's main photo, a shelf of medical files, highlighted the mostnon-controversial of Obama's proposals:

Part of the Problem - Computerizing medical records is one cost-saving Obama proposal.

Who could be against that? The real costs, of course, will involve subsidizing health insurance for people that Democrats define as poor, as well as heavy regulations on private insurance companies. But those details were only dealt with briefly, in paragraph 19, after Sack had devoted most of his article to hammering home the "health care in crisis" theme.

President-elect Barack Obama placed a heavy bet last week that the recession-wracked country he is about to inherit has finally reached its tipping point on health care.

It might seem counterintuitive to gamble that political and economic forces would converge at such a low point after more than half a century of failure. The Treasury has never been so overcommitted, and providing "affordable, accessible health care for every single American," as Mr. Obama describes his goal, would require substantial resources up front.

But Mr. Obama, like others, sees political opportunity in the country's economic distress, and he threw in last week with those who argue that the financial crisis has only made it more imperative to remake the health delivery system - that, in fact, economic recovery depends on it.


With health insurance premiums rising this decade at four times the rate of inflation, and draining a growing share of personal income, middle-class support for an overhaul would seem to be reaching critical mass. If a broad swath of Americans feel destabilized enough by health costs, their demands for relief could help marginalize the kind of opposition from entrenched interests that has killed previous efforts.

"Most Americans are troubled by the lack of universal insurance, but what really frightens them is the prospect that their own insurance won't protect their health or family finances," said Jacob S. Hacker, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley and an authority on health care. "That's a fear that more and more Americans are facing as health costs skyrocket and job security plummets."

Mr. Obama seems to recognize that the recession, with its devastating job losses, affords him the potential to accelerate public opinion. To broaden support for his plan - whatever it ends up being - he insisted last week that systematic improvements in health care would be essential to any lasting economic recovery.


Indeed, the economic consequences of the system's inadequacies have come into relief with the economy's deterioration. Rarely have they been felt so directly by such a broad spectrum of people....There has been pressure from Congressional Democrats for Mr. Obama to stand strong on health care, with influential committee chairmen like Senators Max Baucus of Montana and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts making it an unwavering priority. They are ready to take up legislation early next year, a task made easier by Mr. Obama's plea for immediate action and by tentative encouragement from business, labor and provider groups.

Those interested parties may retreat once details make clear whose ox will be gored. Well-financed health insurers and business groups waged a brutally successful campaign against the Clinton health care plan, and doctors and hospitals have done much the same in state legislatures.

Sack finally got around to the problem of paying for all this wonderful stuff in the 20th paragraph (in a 25-paragraph story), andat the very end he wondered what all the money fuss was about:

Some of those dollars may be found by packaging health care initiatives as stimulus measures, a recessionary opportunity presented by the public's acceptance of deficit spending to spur the economy. What, after all, is $100 billion for health coverage if the government can print $700 billion to bail out the banks?

Back on April 27, Sack penned another overheated story on health in America, "The Short End of the Longer Life," lamenting that although life expectancies for Americans on the whole were rising, some women in Appalachia were experiencing slight declines (mostly because of personal responsibility issues like obesity and tobacco use, though Sack downplayed those figures). Sack even brought in Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards to explain how his left-wing ranting about as "Two Americas" was validated.