Reporters are waking up to the Medicare story, but more digging is needed

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REMAKING HEALTH CARE

By Trudy Lieberman

Millions of Americans in traditional Medicare are unaware of the changes coming to their health care arrangements, and one big reason for that is the lack of coverage from the media. As I wrote in this space in 2019, reporters, once reliable Medicare hounds, had taken a pass, barely covering the program at the time. In the last few months, however, there’s been a glimmer of interest in Medicare. That’s a good thing, since the media needs to cover what’s happening to the program with the same intensity reporters once covered the passage of the Affordable Care Act.

In late April, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released an alarming report. The OIG found that tens of thousands of people enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans are denied necessary care that should have been covered under the program. In an important story by Reed Abelson, The New York Times reported that investigators found evidence of “widespread and persistent problems related to inappropriate denials of services and payment.” In some cases, these denials “may delay or even prevent a Medicare Advantage beneficiary from getting needed care,” said the team leader who worked on the report. CNN ran a piece by Tami Luhby about the OIG report. Her story was important because it meant another mainstream media outlet with a large audience was finally paying attention to Medicare.

Since the first of the year, The American Prospect has run two sharp pieces about the privatization. In “Medicare Advantage Is a Massive Scam,” the Prospect covered the OIG story but also Joe Namath’s sales pitches, calling them an “abject lie.” Earlier in the year, the Prospect ran an excellent piece titled “The Dark History of Medicare Privatization,” by Barbara Caress, who teaches health policy at Baruch College in New York City. These should be required reading for all those — especially current and future beneficiaries — who are concerned about their health insurance coverage. Last December, Joanna Robin, an Australian digital journalist, wrote a fascinating story for The New Republic about the insurance marketing firm and its parent company behind the Joe Namath ads.

Two other outlets that reach more specialized audiences have also weighed in with excellent stories. Matthew Cunningham-Cook, writing for The Lever, told readers how the latest privatization scheme was hatched by a Trump administration official and “is quietly being expanded by the Biden administration through its new ACO REACH program, under the direction of two former Obama administration officials who have revolved between jobs in government and the corporate health care industry.” Truthout, a nonprofit news organization offering independent reporting and commentary, ran a lengthy piece by Dr. Ana Malinow, a pediatrician and past president of Physicians for a National Health Program.

Mark Miller, a well-known financial columnist for Reuters and publisher of a newsletter called RetirementRevised, told his readers accountable care organizations may replace the fee-for-service model and explained why that’s concerning. In April, he wrote in his column he was “surprised that Medicare’s ACO plan has not yet captured more attention in the media and with political leaders,” noting that Medicare planned to “enroll everyone in this new model by the end of this decade and as early as next year, in some cases — without prior consent.” Miller noted he was surprised this plan had not captured more media attention, “but this fits with a general lack of public debate about the steady growth of Medicare’s privatization.”

It’s well past time for the broader media to take a cue from these examples and report more to the public on what is happening. Reporters can still be the Medicare hounds they once were.

Veteran health care journalist Trudy Lieberman is a contributing editor at the Center for Health Journalism Digital and a regular contributor to the Remaking Health Care column.

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