Tag Archives: health care

Abortion, health care and the media

John Boehner

While driving to work yesterday, I heard House Republican leader John Boehner on NPR, claiming — as he has on any number of occasions — that the health-care-reform bill now being considered by the House would allow for “taxpayer-funded abortions.”

Based on the best available evidence, what Boehner said was not true. That he and other health-bill opponents keep getting away with it exposes a flaw in the news media that goes back at least to the days of Joseph McCarthy. That is, journalists regularly report the words of powerful figures, but only rarely challenge them on the facts. It’s just one of the reasons that President Obama’s quest for near-universal health care is hanging by a thread, and could still be defeated.

A bit of review. Last year the House and the Senate both passed health-care-reform bills with language aimed at ensuring that the current ban on federal funding of abortions would remain in place. Pro-life activists claim the House language is tougher, but other observers say the two bills would accomplish the same thing. Here is Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius in a recent appearance on ABC News’ “This Week”:

The president has said from the outset, we don’t want to change the status quo on abortion funding. Neither the Senate or the House bill has any federal funding for abortion, none. Yes, abortion services are provided, and people will pay out of their own pockets, in both the Senate and the House, but they do it in slightly different ways.

Now, I understand that Sebelius isn’t a neutral analyst. Rep. Bart Stupak, the Democrat who wrote the anti-abortion language that’s in the House bill, says he will oppose the Senate bill, which is under consideration by the House this week. So it’s complicated. Yet there are ample reasons to believe that the concerns Stupak has voiced are wrong, and that, therefore, Boehner and his ilk are exploiting the always-volatile issue of abortion rights for sheer political gain, knowing they can get away with it. Here are three compelling pieces of evidence:

1. The Pulitzer Prize-winning, nonpartisan Web site PolitiFact.com reports that Stupak is just plain wrong — as in “false” — in claiming that every enrollee in the government health-care exchanges that would be created by the proposal would be required to help fund abortion. In addition, PolitiFact notes that the Senate anti-abortion language was written by Sen. Ben Nelson, who’s pro-life. Finally, PolitiFact looks at a claim that a loophole would allow federally funded community health centers to provide abortions as “highly misleading” and “barely true.”

2. A serious pro-life Democrat, Rep. Dale Kildee, announced yesterday that he will support the Senate language after concluding that it will not lead to taxpayer funding of abortions. “I have listened carefully to both sides, sought counsel from my priest, advice from family, friends and constituents, and I have read the Senate abortion language more than a dozen times,” Kildee, who once studied for the priesthood, told the New York Times. “I am convinced that the Senate language maintains the Hyde Amendment, which states that no federal money can be used for abortion.”

3. A coalition representing more than 50,000 Catholic nuns released a letter yesterday supporting the health-care proposal, including the Senate language, thus contradicting a stand taken by the U.S. Conference of Bishops. Have the nuns suddenly become pro-choice? No, they have not, according to the Los Angeles Times. “We agree that there shouldn’t be any federal funding of abortion,” Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of Network, is quoted as saying. “From our reading of the bill, there isn’t any federal funding of abortion.”

Legalisms aside, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof today predicts that the health-care bill, if it becomes law, will lead to a dramatic decrease in the number of abortions, since research has shown that access to health care correlates with fewer abortions.

Since the health-care debate began a year ago, Obama and the Democrats have done a miserable job of explaining the stakes, and the media have largely engaged in their typically mindless “he said/she said” horse-race coverage. When the media do attempt to tease out the truth (as in this CNN “Fact Check”), the results are often muddled with so much fake even-handedness that news consumers are left not knowing what to think.

Perhaps in examining just this small aspect of the debate, we can detect a larger pattern.

Photo (cc) by republicanconference and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Wrong on reconciliation

ABC News’ Jake Tapper today did not challenge U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham as Graham railed against the notion that Senate Democrats might use reconciliation to get around a Republican filibuster and pass health-care reform.

Yet it is a simple fact that reconciliation will not be used to pass the measure. It is a logical impossibility.

As we know, both branches of Congress have already approved near-universal health-care bills. Sometime this week, the House is expected to vote on whether to pass the Senate version. If it’s approved, the bill will go to President Obama’s desk for his signature, and it will become law. No further action will be needed.

If reconciliation is used, it will only be to give the Senate a chance to tweak the law so that it is more to the liking of House Democrats. But keep in mind that if the effort fails, the Senate bill will still be the law of the land.

Paul Levy and a blogger’s obligations

Paul Levy has written a characteristically thoughtful response to my suggestion that he should have disclosed his support for Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker when he criticized Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to control rising health-care costs. We also discussed it in the comments.

Levy offers a spectrum, and I’d answer it this way: If someone is writing a public blog offering commentary on political issues, then yes, he should disclose if he has publicly endorsed or donated money to a candidate. But no, there’s no need to disclose your private voting intentions, even if you have told friends. The former makes you a supporter; the latter merely makes you a likely voter.

Levy is not a journalist, but he’s doing journalism of a sort. Thus, not all of the ethical rules that journalists have to follow apply to him (it would be anathema even for an opinion journalist to give money to a candidate, for instance). But for someone in his position, it’s better to disclose.

Final point: Of course, Levy had already disclosed his support for Baker. It’s not a matter of being open; he is. It’s a matter of informing those who might not be aware of his political activities.

Talking back in real time

I’m a huge admirer of Paul Levy, president and CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess, but I can’t pretend I’m in a position to judge the merits of his objections to Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to cap medical costs. (Although I do think Levy makes some good points.)

My main reason for posting this is to call attention to the ongoing media revolution made possible by the Internet. Old story though it may be, I think this is an unusually relevant example, and we shouldn’t take for granted the power to talk back:

  • The Boston Globe reports on Patrick’s proposal. For whatever reason, none of the reporters chose to quote Levy.
  • Levy writes what is essentially an op-ed piece in almost-real time, without having to wait for days and be subject to the Globe’s editing process.
  • Levy also links to another account that he believes got it right: an editorial in the Boston Herald.

As for influence, Levy’s blog, Running a Hospital, gets about 10,000 unique visitors a month, according to Compete.com. Obviously the Globe’s circulation is much larger. But how often do you read guest op-eds? Yeah, me too. Levy may well attract as many if not more readers by posting on his blog than if his piece had run in the Globe.

One thing I’ll point out, and, frankly, Levy should have: he is supporting Patrick’s main rival in the gubernatorial contest, Republican Charlie Baker, former head of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. Levy no doubt thinks that fact is well-known, especially among the specialized audience that reads his blog. But disclosure never hurts, and it often helps.

Democracy and the Senate

Both the Boston Globe and the New York Times today run stories on the fate of health-care reform in the event that Republican candidate Scott Brown defeats Democrat Martha Coakley in tomorrow’s special election for the U.S. Senate.

In light of that, I want to address the notion that it would be somehow undemocratic if the House could be persuaded to pass the Senate bill, thus avoiding a return trip to the Senate, or if a compromise measure were rushed through before Brown can be sworn in.

First, let’s look at the composition of the Senate itself. Even if Brown wins, the Senate will comprise 59 Democrats or their allies and 41 Republicans. Only in the upside-down world of the modern Senate would that be considered anything less than an enormous advantage.

What gives the Republicans clout, of course, is their unprecedented strategy of filibustering vote after vote. As Paul Krugman recently noted, a study by the political scientist Barbara Sinclair found that the routine filibuster is a very recent phenomenon, and entirely Republican in origin.

If the Republicans are going to insist that 60 votes are needed to get anything done, then rules reform ought to be the first order of the day. My preference would be an insistence that filibusters be carried out the old-fashioned way, Jimmy Stewart-style, on the floor of the Senate. Harry Reid could play Lyndon Johnson, forcing everyone to stay in the chamber until human biology brought an end to the charade.

My second point is that we tend to forget what a distorting effect the Constitution’s two-senators-per-state rule has with regard to whose voice gets heard. I ran some numbers a little while ago; in states with one Democrat and one Republican, I awarded half the population to each. Using that formula, I found that Democratic senators represent 196 million Americans, and Republican senators represent just 110 million.

Thus the Senate’s 60-40 margin in favor of Democrats would widen to 64-36 if the one-person/one-vote rule were followed. And a Brown victory would barely affect that margin, as it would be 63 percent to 37 percent.

There’s no question that a Brown victory would have an enormous psychological effect. It’s hard to know whether congressional Democrats would push something through in order to put health care behind them once and for all, or if they would decide instead to give up on the whole effort.

But that’s a matter for another day — perhaps Wednesday.

The Krauthammer compromise

Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, a physician, suggests what sounds to me (admittedly no expert on this phenomenally complex subject) like a reasonable compromise that would deliver to President Obama the universal health-care bill he wants while overcoming most of the objections.

Here’s the problem. Krauthammer does not acknowledge the very real possibility that Republican leaders have settled on defeating health-care reform as a strategy for politically wounding Obama — the details be damned. I suspect that Obama could embrace the Krauthammer ideas in total, only to see the GOP move the goal posts on him. (Via Jay Fitzgerald.)