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Tracking media coverage of health care

Headlines and A1 charts stuck with the stock market, Washington’s changeling rescue
proposals and the plights of anxious finance firms in the week between the Palin-Biden debate and John McCain and Barack Obama’s town hall face off last Tuesday. The economy was a subtext to most of the other issues drawn into the election vortex.

Coverage of two issues – health care and taxes – nearly doubled. Health care stories increased across all media from 256 stories to 439. Tax stories rose from just over 400 for the week to nearly 800 between the weeks ending Sept. 29 and Oct. 6, according to stories polled for the LexisNexis Analytics dashboard.

This spike in incidence is not unrelated. Tax stories are hot as voters stare at a growing deficit and watch their 401k’s plunge, but tax talk has also become a predictable symptom of health care reform stories.

Sarah Palin coined the health-care-is-tax-policy mentality in the VP debate when she responded to Gwen Ifill’s question about McCain’s health care plan: “I would like to respond about the tax increases,” she said, diverting the conversation to an earlier Biden comment

Palin’s remark was a dodge, not an analogy, but it highlights the campaigns’ discourse on health care in the last few weeks. The candidates promote their plans – and attack the other guy’s – on whether the tax benefit Americans receive on their health care spending should be tied to employment, or cut lose, encouraging more consumers to shop for insurance on the individual market.

A Sept. 15 offering by the Tax Policy Center initially drowned in the Wall Street debacle – was picked up in several reports that week. It finds Obama’s plan would add about $1.6 trillion to the deficit, while McCain’s would add less, $1.3 trillion over ten years, but would buy far less coverage per dollar. The Chicago Sun-Times waited until the eve of the Oct. 7 presidential debate to dismay. “Our purpose here is not to discourage ambitious plans and bold action by our next president,” but, the editorial board wrote, noting that any reform agenda would be expensive and untimely in the midst of the crisis. But, “we love a good tax cut as much as anybody does.”Dashboard2

The economic crisis, which last week seemed an impenetrable shadow for other campaign issues, actually may help keep health care in the debate. In a story about the changing battleground map, Adam Nagourney and Jeff Zeleny reported in the New York Times that the Obama campaign has recognized health care as a softer way to approach the economy.

“It is health care, advisers said, that they believe resonates more than other issues for Americans who are worried about their economic condition,” they wrote. “It is a less threatening way to talk about the economy – showing pictures of shuttered banks, for example, could create more worry – that aides said tested well across demographic groups, but particularly among older voters who have been slower to warm to Mr. Obama.”

Of course, this construction fails to appreciate the other important issues under the umbrella of health policy – id est the health part.

Rising to the occasion, the conservative Washington Times reminded us Tuesday that millions of uninsured people have a tough time finding treatment, and in a worst case scenario, camp out for days, waiting to see doctors at a Wise County, Va., health fair. It’s not all about the taxes after all.

The Washington Times reporter, Gabriella Boston, gathered a little moral perspective from Diane Rowland, the Executive Director of the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured: “Lack of access to [affordable] medical care is not a problem confined to poor, inner-city neighborhoods. It’s an American problem,” said

Elizebeth Edwards: Keep it on the table

In the middle of the week reviewed in this media report, Elizabeth Edwards told an audience at the New Yorker Festival (Oct. 4) that her mission had evolved as one of the more prominent voices rising from groups like Health Care for American NOW. Early in the election season, she said she was pushing for universal health care, but, “now it’s really also to keep it [reform] on the table.”

Atul Gawande, the surgeon and New Yorker staff writer who interviewed Edwards, saved the worst for last. He asked how Edwards would continue her advocacy work now that her husband’s affair is public. She replied that she would “plow through it, just like I intend to do with this question.” The crowd filled the Ethical Culture Society’s auditorium with applause.

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