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NBC Paints Cancer Victim as Emblematic of Need for 'Public Option'

Centering its story around a man unable to get "affordable" health insurance after a battle with cancer, Thursday's NBC Nightly News devoted its "In-Depth" segment to the "public option," what anchor Brian Williams innocuously described as "a government insurance program similar to Medicare, but available to those under 65." NBC didn't mention conservative concern such a program would become a "slippery slope" toward a single-payer system since the government could under-price private insurers.

Reporter Robert Bazell focused on Chuck Bille, who "at 61 loves the outdoors and feels healthy, but Bille had leukemia that is now in remission. And recently, he was laid off from his job that had provided health insurance." Bazell contended "covering people like Bille who can't get affordable insurance is one of the most contentious issues in health reform," so "some want a new government program, similar to Medicare, as an option for those who can't get or don't want employer-based insurance." A university professor then enthused: "It could offer much broader coverage, more benefits, more services, deeper coverage, thereby allowing people a choice of a product that actually is tailored to their needs."

Though respondents just as easily could be described as wanting to keep private insurance if a public system is created, Bazell maintained that President Obama's wishes got a boost since "Obama wants a new public plan, and the latest NBC/ Wall Street Journal poll finds that 76 percent of Americans think it is important or extremely important to have a choice of public or private plan."

(Question 34a in the survey released on Wednesday (PDF): "In any health care proposal, how important do you feel it is to give people a choice of both a public plan administered by the federal government and a private plan for their health insurance - extremely important, quite important, not that important, or not at all important?")

Only after all of that did Bazell set up a soundbite from a Heritage Foundation spokesman by acknowledging "others say the answer lies in reforms of private insurance companies, and they worry about implications of more federal involvement."

[To comment on this post, check the version on the MRC's NewsBusters blog.]

The MRC's Brad Wilmouth corrected the closed-captioning against the video to provide this transcript of the story on the Thursday, June 18 NBC Nightly News:

BRIAN WILLIAMS: We are back now with NBC News "In Depth." Tonight we take on health care reform, an issue that has again moved front and center, and it's going to be a long, hard fight. Make no mistake. The President says it's a priority for him, and one of the biggest flashpoints here is this idea of a so-called public option. We're going to be hearing a lot about it - a government insurance program similar to Medicare, but available to those under 65. Our report tonight from our chief science correspondent, Robert Bazell. ROBERT BAZELL: Chuck Bille at 61 loves the outdoors and feels healthy, but Bille had leukemia that is now in remission. And recently, he was laid off from his job that had provided health insurance.

CHUCK BILLE: With the loss of the job, of course, the insurance was lost as well.

BAZELL: Because he has a preexisting condition, his only choice for insurance is a program called COBRA that allows a former employee to pay full price for the insurance that was offered at a subsidized rate by the employer.

BILLE: So it went up to literally a little over $1,500 a month for health care coverage.

BAZELL: It must be a bit more than you get in unemployment benefits.

BILLE: Well, it's close. It pretty much eats up the unemployment benefits.

BAZELL: Covering people like Bille who can't get affordable insurance is one of the most contentious issues in health reform. Some want a new government program, similar to Medicare, as an option for those who can't get or don't want employer-based insurance.

SARA ROSENBAUM, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: It could offer much broader coverage, more benefits, more services, deeper coverage, thereby allowing people a choice of a product that actually is tailored to their needs.

BAZELL: President Obama wants a new public plan, and the latest NBC/ Wall Street Journal poll finds that 76 percent of Americans think it is important or extremely important to have a choice of public or private plan. But others say the answer lies in reforms of private insurance companies, and they worry about implications of more federal involvement

ROBERT MOFFITT, HERITAGE FOUNDATION: It will dramatically alter the nature of our health care system, and it will dramatically increase the power of the federal government over the financing and delivery of health care.

BAZELL: Both sides agree that almost anything that gets more people covered will cost more. Most Americans, like Chuck Bille, simply want affordable health care. Robert Bazell, NBC News, Minneapolis.

- Brent Baker is Vice President for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center